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Faculty Profile: Yochanan Kushnir

by Kaci Fowler

Yochanan Kushnir
Yochanan Kushnir, Earth Institute faculty member

Yochanan Kushnir began his career as a meteorologist in the Israeli Navy, where he started as an operational marine forecaster, and with time became the Navy’s Chief Meteorology Officer. As part of his duties, Kushnir ventured out to sea to collect meteorological and oceanographic data for research. Motivated by these experiences, Kushnir left the Navy and Israel in 1979 to pursue a Ph.D. at Oregon State University, followed by a postdoctoral research post at the University of Washington. In 1989, he attained a research position at the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory. Today, he is a Lamont Research Professor, and a member of the Earth Institute faculty. He also serves as the director of the Cooperative Institute for Climate Applications and Research (CICAR), a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Columbia University.

Kushnir’s research focuses on understanding climate variability and change, including the patterns, mechanisms, and predictability of the related phenomena and their impacts. “My research involves the study of Earth observations as well as the output of global and regional climate models. These models are a product of intense research into weather and climate over the last half-century,” Kushnir explains. “The models are quite realistic and thus serve as the climatologist’s laboratory for testing hypotheses regarding the workings of the climate system, its sensitivities, and its response to natural and anthropogenic forces.” His primary interest is in long-term climate fluctuations. Here the use of proxy data from tree rings, cave deposits, and ocean sediments is important. “These data extend our relatively short instrumental database and allow us to look at the more distant past to learn about a broad range of climate phenomena and behaviors. This type of research is particularly accessible here at Lamont.”

Over the years, Kushnir contributed to education by advising, mentoring and teaching undergraduate and graduate students. He taught as an adjunct professor at the School of International and Public Affairs and in the Department of Environmental Sciences of Barnard College. He has also lectured at the Feinberg School for Graduate Studies, Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel and most recently as a visiting professor of the Institute of Earth Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In Israel, Kushnir also studied long-term variations in the Holocene climate of the Eastern Mediterranean region, while educating students and informing them about unparalleled research opportunities at Lamont and the Earth Institute.

One of Kushnir’s best teaching experiences was with graduate students in the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program. “I was definitely inspired by the keen interest and enthusiasm that these young people displayed regarding climate and the environment and their keen interest in acting to ensure sound and sustainable policies on the environment through participation in government and private organizations.”

As a member of the Earth Institute faculty, Kushnir takes advantage of opportunities to collaborate with colleagues in committee work and research. He serves on a couple of Earth Institute committees, is a member of the internal steering committee of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED), and collaborates with Columbia Water Center investigators in research projects that cross the boundary between hydrology and climate. Kushnir is also a co-principal investigator in the Consortium for Climate Risk in the Urban Northeast, an interdisciplinary Columbia University research effort funded by NOAA. The Consortium seeks to realign climate research to better serve society and meet decision makers’ needs. One of Kushnir’s hopes is to utilize the potential of the Earth Institute to address the challenge of coping with climate variability and change in an overpopulated world, specifically in the world’s cities. Kushnir believes that “with increase in world population, especially in urban centers, climate preparedness in these places is quickly becoming a number-one challenge to our field.”

Kushnir received his Ph.D. in atmospheric sciences from Oregon State University (1985), his M.Sc. in meteorology from Tel Aviv University (1980) and his B.Sc. in physics from Technion, Israel Institute of Technology in 1971. He has chaired and served as a member of national and international panels and committees, including those for the United States Climate Variability and Predictability World Climate Research Programme (CLIVAR) and CLIVAR International, NOAA, the American Geophysical Union, and United States Global Ocean Ecosystem Dynamics (GLOBEC).

Kushnir was a co-editor of the American Geophysical Union Geophysical Monograph Series (2003), The North Atlantic Oscillation: Significance and Environmental Impact; a contributing author to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2001 Third Assessment Report; and a co-author of the National Research Council report, Climate Variability on Decade-to-Century Time Scales. Kushnir’s professional affiliations include the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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