State of the Planet

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Initiative on Extreme Weather and Climate Kick-Off

This week marks the launch of the new Columbia Initiative on Extreme Weather and Climate, a cross-disciplinary collaboration between a variety of centers, research groups and individuals from across Columbia University. On Monday, February 23, 2015, over 200 people attended a World Leaders Forum panel event, “Preparing for Extreme Weather: Global Lessons from Sandy,” in Low Library. The event was co-sponsored by the Office of the Executive Vice President for Research, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and the Earth Institute.

Adam Sobel introducing the event. (Photo: Eileen Barroso)

Michael Purdy, Executive Vice President for Research, gave opening remarks, welcoming the crowd, many of whom were the faculty, students and staff involved in the new Initiative. Purdy highlighted the importance of the initiative – one that takes advantage of the broad and deep expertise that exists across Columbia University on all dimensions of climate and extreme weather issues. Following Purdy’s welcome, Adam Sobel, Professor of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics and of Earth and Environmental Sciences, and Director of this new Initiative, gave further color and insight into how the initiative came about. Sobel reflected on his interactions and experiences speaking to the public in the months after Hurricane Sandy; these activities allowed him to develop a more visceral understanding of the importance of scientific research for the public. In the months following Sandy, he described organizing regular workshops and meetings drawing upon the wide array of scientists thinking about the problem of extreme events and questioned whether there ought to be a way to keep that momentum going and bring together this group of experts in a more regular way.

And so the Initiative came to be. The mission of the Columbia Initiative on Extreme Weather and Climate is to understand the risks to human life and property from extreme weather events, both in the present and future climates, and on developing solutions to mitigate those risks. Professor Sobel mentioned many of the associated faculty and centers whose work reflects the diversity of expertise from which the Initiative will draw.

Sobel then introduced the panelists:

  • Michael GerrardAndrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice; Director, Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, Columbia Law School, Columbia University in the City of New York
  • Lisa Goddard,Director and Senior Research Scientist, International Research Institute for Climate and Society; Adjunct Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The Earth Institute, Columbia University in the City of New York
  • Radley Horton,Associate Research Scientist, Center for Climate Systems Research, The Earth Institute, Columbia University in the City of New York
  • Daniel ZarrilliDirector, New York City Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency
Adam Sobel with panelists Daniel Zarrilli, Lisa Goddard, Michael Gerrard and Radley Horton in Low Library. (Photo: Eileen Barroso)

The diversity on the panel was certainly reflected in the discussion; panel topics flowed naturally from those of policy and law, to science and forecasting, to insurance and floodplain maps. Panelists discussed New York City, for not only is it home to the Columbia community, it is a place that has long considered climate risk and projections in long-term planning, and a place whose government leaders are comfortable talking about science, risks, and uncertainty. And there are lots of shared lessons between New York and other parts of the world. Hurricane Sandy and the response by the local and federal governments have had a great impact on the larger conversation on climate change, and it upped the speed at which lots of conversations and activities were happening, including at a policy level. The experts discussed a growing body of laws that are accounting for changes, like sea-level rise projections, in infrastructure planning. They concluded that Sandy, overall, allowed for greater interaction between scientists and decision-makers, which in turn helped advance the science.

The night’s big takeaway? We’ll never be climate-proof, but we can be climate-ready; and there are lots of activities underway that are helping us do that– activities in science, in policy, and in a wide-range of other disciplines that allow for the generation and sharing of information. The crossing of these activities and the impact that they can have on each other is where the opportunity lies. The Initiative on Extreme Weather and Climate will attempt to do just that – create a locus for activities on extremes, and bring together people and institutions from a variety of disciplines to develop integrated understandings, methodologies and solutions.

The next activity of the Initiative on Extreme Weather and Climate will be a science workshop in early May. For updates and more information, view the website here.

Missed the kick-off? A full video of the event can be found here:


Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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