The sky's no limit

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Fascinated by what was above him as a young boy, peering skyward at stars at night and clouds by day, it was a natural progression for Sam Dean to forge a career in atmospheric and climate research.

Born in Kilmarnock, Scotland, Dean came to New Zealand with his father and Kiwi mother in 1976.

“We came on a rusty Russian ship,” says the recently appointed Chief Scientist at NIWA’s Climate and Atmosphere Centre.

“It took six weeks and the people in the cabin next door didn’t even know I was on the boat. It must have left a lasting impression because nowadays you won’t see me on NIWA’s deepwater research vessel Tangaroa – I’ve been to Antarctica, but I flew.”

A lasting love of the skies

But an affinity with the space above him has remained strong.

Growing up in Devonport and then in Nelson, Dean decided to turn his passion into a career and went to the University of Canterbury.

“I went there because I knew I wanted to do physics but I was also really interested in astronomy and astrophysics.

“The change for me was around my third year. There was a professor named Bryan Lawrence who taught a course on geophysical fluid dynamics. This described how air moves in the atmosphere, how energy is exchanged and when water changes state – creating equations to pull out an understanding of weather systems and how the air around us will move in response to everything else around it.

Maths is useful not only for the present, but also the future

“It was a beautiful insight for me, that you could take maths and do something that not only describes the world around us now, but also allows you to predict the future.”

Having gained his PhD in clouds and climate modelling, Dean headed to the United Kingdom – by air, of course – to undertake a postdoctorate research role at the University of Oxford, measuring clouds from space using satellites. In 2006 he returned home to New Zealand to join NIWA.

It was then that he took a keen interest in the influence of human beings on climate systems.

Understanding climate change lets us plan how to adapt and thrive

Climate change, Dean says, is here and already having an impact on New Zealand.

“Extreme rainfall – that’s one of the ways New Zealand will most significantly feel the effects of climate change. Extreme rainfall is already likely to be more intense, and we’ve worked to use climate models and observations to understand how much climate change is already influencing New Zealand.

“I’m driven by understanding the world around us. I don’t believe in using fear to motivate people. I want them to be informed to make decisions based on good science.

“I do think it’s important that we try to understand how much climate change is likely to affect New Zealand in the years ahead. I’ve spent a lot of time researching this question myself.

“Then, once you understand that significant change is coming and some of it is now inevitable, planning how we will adapt and thrive in a changing climate becomes a priority.

“One example of this is the need for timely and accurate forecasts for ever-more-severe weather events. With the increasing exposure of our infrastructure to hazards such as flooding from rainfall and storm surge, our ability to provide advance warning of events will be critical to ensuring we are resilient in the future. That’s why forecasting the impacts of severe weather events has become another focus for me.”

NIWA research an approach “all science must take”

All of this brings us back to Dean’s new role. After nearly 10 years at NIWA Dean recently stepped into the challenging role of Chief Scientist.

“What I bring to the role is a very wide personal background in climate, atmosphere and hazards science. I want to use that knowledge as best I can to help keep NIWA at the forefront of a national and international science environment that is rapidly evolving.

“On top of that, the aspect that I’m most looking forward to is working to support our fantastic scientists, to promote the great things we are doing in this area and to grow our capabilities.

“It’s a great strength of NIWA that we work to maintain a strong backbone of fundamental research, but also look to apply that knowledge in developing top-quality science applications and decision-support tools.

“For me it is the approach that all science must take in the future and lies at the heart of solving the climate change problem.”

Given that the problem has, in part, been created by science and technology, it seems sensible that science and technology can be employed to help solve it.

“There’s a certain investment, political will and common sense of purpose that’s required, but it’s doable,” Dean says.

“I’m a great believer in the power of humankind and our ability to innovate and do good science to work our way through issues.”

Dean doesn’t just talk the talk – he walks, rather rides, it as well. When the Wellington weather’s conducive he travels to work on his electric-assisted mountain bike. The bike is a small example of the way science, technology and innovation can change our lives for the better, Dean says.

Climate change’s cloud has a silver lining

Here and now though, Dean’s finding that the cloud of climate change has a silver lining.

“I certainly enjoy extreme weather events – you kind of have to, living in Wellington. We live on top of a hill in Brooklyn with a magnificent view of the mountains. We get southerlies, northerlies, rain … I love that.

“I certainly appreciate New Zealand for its dynamic weather and the beautiful days have to be celebrated.

NIWA's Chief Scientist for Climate and Atmosphere and Hazards, Sam Dean. [Dave Allen, NIWA]