Climate Science Pioneer Geert Jan van Oldenborgh Dies
(Bloomberg) -- As heat waves, storms, floods, and droughts intensified over the last several years, so has the ability of scientists to estimate how much likelier or worse climate change made each them. Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, a Dutch climate scientist who was a driving force behind this breakthrough work, died Oct. 12 after an eight-year fight against cancer. He was 59.
Just a decade ago, there was a vast disconnect between a public curious about whether greenhouse gases influenced weather and scientists who scoffed at the question. Attending a meeting in 2012 to develop an EU science proposal, van Oldenborgh told colleagues he thought they should add real-time climate analysis to their priorities list.
“And, as in any good story about a new development in science, everybody laughed at me and said it was impossible,” van Oldenborgh said in an interview last month. “It was completely according to the storyline.”
Scientific interest in extreme-event attribution might not have been new at that time, but the work was still nascent and no one had standardized how to do it yet. On the strength of his research and reputation, the EU ended up allotting him a small amount of funding to see if it was possible.
Van Oldenborgh trained in particle physicists and shifted fields when he joined the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) in the mid-1990s to study the physics of El Nino, the occasional warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean that carried global weather consequences. The timing was right. One of the most powerful El Ninos on record helped make 1998 then the hottest year on record. It remains the only year in the 20th century to be included among the 20 hottest years since 1880.
He began publishing climate data and statistical tools to analyze it publicly, on a site called the KNMI Climate Explorer, which over the last two decades has become a critical tool for climate analysis among scientists, students, governments, and private-sector analysts. The project democratized access to climate data around the world. “Which means that in Addis Ababa you can do the exact same analysis on a tiny internet connection that I can do here in the Netherlands,” van Oldenborgh said.
Seven years ago the research nonprofit Climate Central raised funding for a new project called World Weather Attribution, which van Oldenborgh would co-lead with Friederike Otto, then of the University of Oxford. That program pushed the two scientists to accelerate the speed of extreme-event analysis.
Otto remembered her colleague’s humility and inclusiveness. “One of the most important lessons I have ever learned in my life is work with the people that are fun to work with,” said Otto, a senior lecturer at Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment. “It's the most important thing. You can do good things because you just enjoy doing it. Just don't work with people that are not fun.”
Driving World Weather Attribution is a simple goal, to change the way people talk about extreme weather and climate change.
Heidi Cullen, who worked with van Oldenborgh when she was the chief scientist Climate Central, said that his “integrity and dedication to the science, even while battling cancer, inspired all of us and strengthened our commitment to that goal.” She added: “The scientific community has lost a champion, and I lost a personal hero, but his contributions will never be forgotten as that goal was achieved.”
A consummate scientist and civil servant, van Oldenborgh gave an interview to Bloomberg Green for a recent feature on his and Otto’s work with World Weather Attribution. He said he wished that more time would allow him to “continue this kind of work.”
“I may be old-fashioned,” he said. “But I really appreciate being useful for society and making the world a better place.”
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