16th Annual Kendall Lecture with Thomas R. Karl

Thomas R. Karl, Independent Scholar and Past Director of the National Climatic Data Center - NOAA (1998-2015)
Tuesday, April 18, 5:00pm to 6:30pm

Climate Data: Mysteries, Wonders, and Reality

Climate data comes in a rich variety of quality with varying time and space resolutions.  Although increasing volumes of climate data are now generated by computer models, scientists are totally dependent on active and passive methods to reconstruct the state and changing state of the climate.  Such measurements are directly linked to our ability to simulate and predict climate.  Active measurements come from modern-day observing systems of varying quality, while passive measurements from proxy data, such as paleoclimate tree-rings, ice-cores, ocean and lake sediments and many others are used to extend our understanding of long-past climates. 

The mystery behind climate observations stem from the fact they require careful understanding of their limitations and usefulness. This stems from a variety of reasons including: international sharing of data, calibration history, power outages and constraints, changes in observing protocols by the system operators, varying amounts of metadata describing the operation of the observing system, time and space sampling size and averaging times, the environment affecting the measurements, among other factors.

The wonder of all this data is being able to deduce changes and variations in the Earth’s climate from a surprisingly robust set of independent methods to reconstruct past and present climate from an exponentially growing set of data (approaching exabyte size --- 1018 or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes). This includes thousands of climate variables and diverse methods of processing these data.  Scientists working in these areas have sometimes been the harbinger of improved international relationships, sent as ambassadors of data exchanges between countries to warm-up relationships, in addition to building the collective knowledge of climate variability and change.   Such collaboration is an essential part of intergovernmental organizations which have responsibilities to help coordinate global climate observations, e.g., the World Meteorological Organization.

The mystery and wonder often come together as a not so glamorous nity-gritty reality of trying to make sense of all the observations.  Considerable scientific discourse is often necessary to develop and interpret data sets and models that help us understand the state and changing state of the climate system.  A few examples of how this has evolved will be presented.  This will include the data and methods used to deduce changes and variations in the Earth’s temperature and precipitation during the Anthropocene.


About the Speaker

Karl received his B.S. from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb and his M.S. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was awarded a Doctorate of Humane Letters from North Carolina State University.  After a brief TV/Radio weather forecasting position at the beginning of his career Tom joined the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 1975.  He has had a variety of assignments in NOAA including Senior Scientist (1992-1998), Director of the National Climatic Data Center (1998-2015) and Director of the National Centers for Environmental Information (2015-2016).   In 2010 he was asked by the President’s Science Advisor to Chair the $2.5b US Global Change Research Program’s Subcommittee on Global Change Research.  He has continued in that position 2010-2016.  There he was responsible for ensuring the delivery to Congress of an interagency Global Change Research Plan, Assessments, and annual Progress Reports for all agencies engaged in global change research.  In August of 2016 he retired from federal service after a 41-year career.  He is now an Independent Scholar. 

Karl has been fortunate to receive many awards including the American Meteorological Society’s (AMS) Suomi Award, a Presidential Rank Award, six Department of Commerce Gold Medals and two Bronze Medals.  Tom has also received three NOAA Administrator's Award, the Helmut Landsberg Award from the American Association of State Climatologists, and the Climate Institute’s Outstanding Scientific Achievement Award.

Karl was part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2007.  Tom served as Lead author, Convening Lead Author, and Editor of each of the major IPCC assessments 1990-2009.  For the 2014 Fifth Assessment Report on the Physical Basis for Climate Change he led the US delegation which approved the Fifth Assessment Report.   He was also Chair or Lead Author of the first three US National Climate Assessments coordinated across government, academia, and the private sectors.

Karl has served as Associate Editor (1989-95) and Editor (1998-2000) of the Journal of Climate and received an AMS Editors Award in 1988.  He was chairman of both the AMS Applied Climatology Committee (1989-91) and the AMS Global Change Symposia (1997-2000).  Karl served as AMS Councilor from 2003 to 2006, and as President and a member of the Executive Committee of the AMS from 2009 to 2012.

Karl is also a National Associate of the National Research Council (NRC).  He has served on numerous NRC Committees as both a member and a Chair.  He has testified several times before Congress and has provided numerous briefings on various climate-related issues.  Tom is a fellow of both the AMS and the American Geophysical Union. He has authored or co-authored over 200 scientific articles and scientific books.

About the Series


The Henry W. Kendall Memorial Lecture Series honors the memory of Professor Henry W. Kendall (1926-1999) who was the J.A. Stratton professor of physics at MIT. Professor Kendall received the Nobel Prize in 1990 for research that provided the first experimental evidence for quarks. He had a deep commitment to understanding and finding solutions to the multiple environmental problems facing the world today and in the future.

A founding member of the Union of Concerned Scientists in 1969, he served as its chair for 25 years. Prof. Kendall was deeply involved with arms control and nuclear power safety issues. He played a leading role in organizing scientific community statements on global problems, including the World Scientists' Warning to Humanity in 1992 and the Call for Action at the Kyoto Climate Summit in 1997. His publications included, "Energy Strategies: Toward a Solar Future" (1980), "Beyond the Freeze" (1982), "Fallacy of Star Ways" (1985), and "Crisis Stability and Nuclear War" (1988). He received the Bertram Russell Society award in 1992, the Environmental Leadership award from Tufts University's Lincoln Filene Center in 1991, the Ettore Majorana-Erice Science for Peace prize in 1994, the Award for Leadership in Environmental Stewardship from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future in 1997 and the Nicholson Medal for Humanitarian Services from the American Physical Society in 1998. The permanently endowed Kendall Lecture allows MIT faculty and students to be introduced to forefront areas in global change science by leading researchers.

For more information please contact: Ruth Mattson, rmattson@mit.edu