Perhaps not surprisingly given his life-long passion for the weather, Clark Evans is an avid lover of the outdoors, including running, hiking, and sightseeing. Living in Grafton, he is a member of the village’s Library Board and is also active in his church. Rather than seeing religion, and specifically Christianity, as being at odds with science, he views science as a tool by which the creation can be better understood – and, in the case of climate and natural resources, protected – and thus as a powerful force for good in the world.
Clark Evans is an Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, in his third year as the Atmospheric Sciences Program Coordinator. The researchers in the program largely fall into two camps: those that primarily study Meteorology and those that primarily study Climate Dynamics and Variability. Clark finds himself in the first camp, with a background in tropical meteorology and a more recent focus on thunderstorms. His work largely leverages numerical modeling, including “Big Data” and cloud computing. He admits to being a lifelong weather geek, watching the Weather Channel in Kindergarten – enamored by the then-recent phenomenon on cable TV – well too late into the evening. And after living through multiple hurricanes while growing up in Florida, his passion was sealed. He brings this passion to his work, and as you can tell by speaking with him, he is very much student-focused.
Clark admits that he came into the coordinator’s job with the Atmospheric Sciences Program in part because no one else wanted the administrative duties. Nevertheless, as a well-organized fellow – often to an extreme – he was the perfect candidate. In this role, Clark’s focus has been on recruitment and outreach. The group now recruits across the country, bringing in graduate students from many different states, and offers the full spectrum of degrees: Bachelors, Masters, and PhDs. With access to the Innovative Weather Center for the perfect built-in internship experience, UWM looks like the perfect destination for budding weather professionals. It is also financially supported by federal funds from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Department of Energy (DOE), to name a few.
One of the biggest changes in the Atmospheric Sciences is the rise of Big Data. With reams of open data from sources such as NOAA and the National Weather Service, statistical and machine learning algorithms are increasingly being used to extract the most useful information. Graduate students in the curriculum take two required courses in Statistical Methods, and many don’t go without taking Data Analytics, a machine learning-related offering. The quantity of current data is a boon for those in the predictive modeling business, but Clark is quick to point out the limitations of historical sources.
On questions of predicting the results for a warming planet, Clark says there is an expectation of stronger (if potentially fewer) hurricanes, but points out that we only have reliable data dating back to the 1960s. Historical data for hurricanes, as well as for tornadoes and thunderstorms, all have their limitations, and it can be difficult to assess what is a trend without careful consideration. The changes we are bound to see will be subtle on a daily basis, but trends are expected to emerge over time. Methods of attributing one-time high-impact events to climate change are maturing, but caution needs to be taken. Statistically, these are potentially outliers, and care should be taken when evaluating them.
Clark is becoming more and more interested in the communication between climate scientists, meteorologists, and the public. Inevitably, scientists have difficulty putting their findings in common terms. It is especially difficult to relate uncertainty and probability, when people want binary answers even if the truth is not binary. He is very interested in people’s perceptions of data and, more generally, how they come to hold their beliefs. He has recently given a freshman seminar on the topic using the recent book from the famous Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow. He hopes to make strides in this area, but it depends a great deal on the future of mathematical education in America.
Clark, like his colleagues, goes into the data agenda-free, and must report on the limitations he sees in the doom and gloom forecasts. Nevertheless, he is also quick to point out that the work of his colleagues in climate variability shows quite clearly that the earth – and specifically, our neighboring bodies of water, the Great Lakes – are warming. And if he has a message for policy makers and the public, it is that they should respect the expertise of people who have devoted their time to understanding our planet.
Written by Casey S. Schroeder, contributing writer to MASA, whose writing can also be found at atheoryof.me