Decoding Droughts with Climate Scientist Richard Seager
Water is fundamental to life on the planet, so variations in the water supply are hugely important for everything that lives on the planet —Richard Seager, Palisades Geophysical Institute/Lamont Research Professor
Seager’s research focuses on droughts and floods—the aspects of the climate system that control the delivery of water. His rich relationship with Columbia University spans over thirty years; he came for his graduate studies, later returned after a postdoc, and continues his work at Lamont as a climate scientist today.
With over 150 publications to his name, Seager leads his field forward in fascinating ways. In 2015, he advised students on a ground-breaking paper that melded social science and physical meteorology. The paper’s thesis, now widely accepted, argued that a multi-year drought, worsened by human-induced climate change, caused the mass migration that contributed to the onset of the Syrian Civil War.
But Seager’s personal landmark discovery while at Columbia?
Finding out what causes long-term persistent droughts in North America.
In the early part of the last decade, the causes of catastrophic droughts—like the Dust Bowl—remained unknown. So Seager and his colleagues used climate model simulations generated at Lamont, and also long-tree records that Lamont colleagues developed, to look at multiple centuries of climate. Ultimately, the group figured out that multi-year droughts were caused by equally persistent variations in the tropical Pacific Ocean’s sea-surface temperatures. That attribution marked a transformative advance in understanding drought not only in the U.S., but also in South America and East Africa; it was a significant step forward in global climate research.
In the continuum of Seager’s career, collaboration runs strongly throughout. Seager loves that Columbia creates, “an intellectual environment that favors cross-disciplinary fertilization.” And as a member of the Earth Institute, he connects with peers from all different fields—public health, political science, engineering, and more. Who will he partner with next, and what new scientific truths will they unearth? Seager says, “What we have to think about in climate change is not just the human-induced component, but the entire system, and how natural variability and change can combine to create events that threaten food, water, shelter.” Whatever his next project, Seager will undoubtedly deliver another new, revolutionary idea that paves the way for future scientists.
Watch a recent video of Dr. Seager below.