ITALIAN VERSION BELOW
It is difficult to explain, to those who have never done it, how difficult fieldwork is. The destinations we choose are often exotic, and for anyone else, they are mostly holiday destinations. Fiji, Seychelles, Tahiti, Bahamas, Bermuda are among the places where I worked and where I left my sweat, taking away a few pieces of rock to be analyzed in the laboratory, or data on which I tried to build or deny theories and assumptions about climate changes in the past.
How to explain the effort of doing 2000 km on a sailing boat that travels at 5 knots, praying that some wind will start to blow, to arrive earlier at destination and to have some relief in the heat of the Indian Ocean? How to explain the relief at the arrival of the wind, which turns into seasickness after a few hours?
Waking up in the middle of the night while sailing because there is another boat in sight, and in those waters the word pirates is not only part of a nice Hollywood plot. Landing on a semi-deserted island during the arrival of a sea storm, cutting your hands and feet on the reef in order not to wet the working gear. Broken fingers fixed as best as possible, cuts flooded with betadine hoping that they do not become infected.
We have the luck to travel to incredible places, where few have been before. But we have no time to realize it. We walk for several kilometers under the sun to get to a distant site, knowing that the return will be ten times harder because we will be tired from the day and loaded with rocks in the backpack.
How to explain why we willfully subject ourselves to unbearable heat, for 10 or 12 hours a day? Burnt skin, sunstrokes. The immense effort to keep the mind lucid and present even at 40 degrees in the shade, repeat out loud the steps to be taken to make sure not to forget anything essential, because an error in the field is paid dearly afterwards, when in the office there will be data missing.
Why do we do it? Not for the money, the salary of a researcher is low compared to any company in which we could apply our knowledge. Ten years ago I was offered to work in the oil industry: the basic salary was the same as what I now take as an experienced researcher. By now, I’d probably be rich, while at the moment I can just get by.
So why? I give myself three reasons. The first is the same one that prompted Jacques Cousteau to explore the oceans, or Darwin to embark on the Beagle. Curiosity, passion, the desire to know more about our planet, its past and its future. The second is the sense of duty I feel towards future generations. As long as there is a researcher providing data on climate change, we will be able to try to change the world for the better. The third (and perhaps this only applies to some) is the innate desire to excel in what I do, to be the first to find something new that had not yet been observed. I guess that goes under passion for knowledge, too, and probably is some form of compensation that makes up for at least a bit of the salary I miss from a industry job.
But the best part of every trip is the people I get to share my life with, researchers who dedicate their lives to getting to know the world. The hard work shared without needing too many words, always ready to help and support each other. Sharing doubts, ideas, frustrations. The hug that dissolves every effort when you finally find what you were looking for, and the fatigue disappears. Looking back at the end of a journey, and realizing how hard it was. Realizing that it wasn't a foregone conclusion that everything was going well, many things could have gone badly wrong. Then looking ahead, thinking about how to organize the things observed and how to communicate them to the world.
And there is always the thought about the next question to answer, the next place to visit, and what is still missing to understand even more what is happening to our Planet.
E’ difficile spiegare, a chi non lo ha mai fatto, quanto sia difficile lavorare sul campo. Le destinazioni che scegliamo sono spesso esotiche, e richiamano alla mente posti da vacanza e relax. Fiji, Seychelles, Tahiti, Bahamas, Bermuda sono tra i posti in cui ho lavorato, e nei quali ho lasciato sudore e fatica, portando via qualche pezzo di roccia da analizzare in laboratorio, o dati sui quali ho provato a costruire o smentire teorie e ipotesi sui cambiamenti climatici.
Come spiegare la fatica di fare 2000 km su una barca a vela che viaggia a 5 nodi, pregando che arrivi un po’ di vento per arrivare prima e per dare un po’ di sollievo nel caldo afoso dell’Oceano Indiano? Come spiegare il sollievo all’arrivo del vento, che si trasforma in dolore per il mal di mare dopo qualche ora?
Svegliarsi nel pieno della notte durante la navigazione perché c’è un’altra imbarcazione in vista, e in quelle acque la parola pirati non é solo sinonimo di una trama di Hollywood. Sbarcare su un’isola semi deserta durante l’arrivo di una mareggiata, tagliandosi mani e piedi sul reef pur di non far bagnare gli strumenti di lavoro. Dita rotte fissate meglio possibile che potranno essere rimesse a posto solo al ritorno, tagli inondati di betadine sperando che non si infettino.
Essere in posti incredibili, dove pochi sono stati prima di te. E non avere il tempo per rendersene conto. Camminare per decine di km sotto il sole per arrivare su un sito lontano, sapendo che il ritorno sarà dieci volte piu duro perche sarai stanco dalla giornata e carico di rocce nello zaino. Essere costantemente sotto il caldo insopportabile, per 10 o 12 ore al giorno. Pelle bruciata, colpi di sole e di calore durante la giornata. La fatica immensa di mantenere la mente lucida e presente anche a 40 gradi all’ombra, ripetersi a voce alta i passaggi da fare per essere sicuri di non scordare niente di essenziale, perché un errore sul campo lo si paga a caro prezzo dopo, quando si tornerà in ufficio e mancheranno dati da analizzare.
Perché lo facciamo? Non per i soldi, lo stipendio di un ricercatore è basso se comparato a qualsiasi ditta nella quale potremmo applicare le nostre conoscenze. Dieci anni fa mi era stato offerto di lavorare nel settore petrolifero: lo stipendio di base era lo stesso di quello che prendo ora come ricercatore esperto. Ad oggi, sarei ricco, mentre posso appena dire di riuscire a sostenermi.
E allora, perché? Per tre motivi. Il primo è lo stesso che spinse Jacques Cousteau ad esplorare gli oceani, o Darwin ad imbarcarsi sul Beagle. La curiosità, la passione, la voglia di sapere di più sul nostro pianeta, sul suo passato e sul suo futuro. Il secondo è il senso di dovere che sentiamo nei confronti delle generazioni future. Finché ci sarà un ricercatore a fornire dati sui cambiamenti climatici saremo in grado di provare a cambiare il mondo in meglio. Il terzo, e questo forse vale solo per alcuni (me compreso) è l’innata voglia di eccellere in quello che facciamo, di essere il primo a trovare qualcosa di nuovo che non era ancora stato osservato.
Ma la parte migliore di ogni viaggio sono le persone con le quali veniamo in contatto, ricercatori che come noi dedicano la loro vita a conoscere il mondo. Il lavoro duro condiviso senza bisogno di troppe parole, essere sempre pronti ad aiutarsi e sostenersi. Condividere dubbi, idee, frustrazioni. Sciogliere tutto in un abbraccio quando finalmente si trova quello che si stava cercando, e la fatica scompare. Guardarsi indietro alla fine di un viaggio, e rendersi conto di quanto sia stata dura. Capire che non era scontato che andasse tutto bene, molte cose potevano andare rovinosamente male. Poi guardare avanti, pensare a come organizzare le cose osservate e come comunicarle al mondo.
E pensare alla prossima domanda a cui rispondere, al prossimo posto da visitare, a quello che ancora manca per capire ancora di più cosa sta succedendo al Pianeta.
----Italian Version Below-----
For some reason, tonight I remembered the last day of 2018. Exactly fifty years ago.
I was in Italy, at home, and it was warm and sunny. In the central hours of the day it had been so warm that my wife and I decided to eat outside, on the balcony. In northern Italy, in winter, that did not happen too often. But that day we were a good 7-8 degrees above the season average, and it had been like that for a few days.
Obviously, we were a bit disappointed because, due to the incredibly warm winter, the mountains just near our home hadn't seen too much snow. And we loved to ski, even with the bitter cold that once characterized the alps. I sorely miss that feeling of skiing for a few hours in the blizzard, and then seek some shelter in a good glass of "Vin Brulé", a hot wine that would warm you inside and out.
I was happy, that day. Of course, a little alarm kept ringing in my mind. I am a climate scientist after all, and I knew 2018 was the fourth hottest year on record since the pre-industrial. As a result of the warmer climate, the 2018 hurricane season was the third consecutive causing above-average damages in the Atlantic. In California, the 2018 wildfire season was the most destructive ever recorded. Even in my beloved Mediterranean, Medicanes, torrential rains and extreme swells hit with unprecedented power. The signals, if one wanted to read them, were all there.
A little swedish kid, Greta, spoke with unprecedented strength in front of the United Nations. She warned them, she warned us. I remember that her speech changed my life. As a scientist, I was already committed to outreach and raising awareness. I became even more, and I started to change my habits to reduce my carbon footprint. I tried to convince others to do the same. Some did, many did not. Surely, most of our politicians did not care. Not those in the US, who harbored some of the most stubborn climate deniers at the highest level of government. Not those in Europe, too busy facing the upcoming of ultra-right and populist parties to notice that the Earth was slowly but steadily dying.
That was before the large floods in Bangladesh and Indonesia, that started towards 2040, causing millions of refugees searching for a new home somewhere. That was before the terrible hurricane season of 2048, with five category six hurricanes hitting in a row the lower Caribbean, leaving thousands dead and homeless. That was before the great drought in Africa, that many now think caused the North African civil wars of 2055. Our politicians were not prepared to all this. After all, we also didn't care: sitting outside, on a warm winter day, happiness was still possible.
Life was good. That was when we could still do something. We failed, and now I have to live the last days of my life (I am 87, so my springs are coming to an end) looking my sons and nephews in the eye and explain them why we didn't act, why we were so blind to what was coming.
I wish I could travel back in time, and implore the young me and all those around me to do more. I am sure they would wake up if they knew what kind of gloomy future is at stake.
Per qualche motivo, stasera mi sono ricordato l'ultimo giorno del 2018. Esattamente cinquant'anni fa.
Ero in Italia, a casa, era caldo e splendeva un bellissimo sole. Nelle ore centrali della giornata era stato così caldo che io e mia moglie abbiamo deciso di mangiare fuori, sul balcone. Nel nord Italia, in inverno, non succedeva troppo spesso. Ma quel giorno eravamo ben 7-8 gradi al di sopra della media stagionale, e così era stato per alcuni giorni.
Ovviamente eravamo un po' delusi perché, a causa dell'inverno incredibilmente caldo, le montagne vicino a casa nostra non avevano visto troppa neve. E ci piaceva sciare, anche con il freddo intenso che un tempo caratterizzava le Alpi. Mi manca molto quella sensazione di sciare per qualche ora, e poi cercare riparo in un buon bicchiere di "Vin Brulé", un vino che ti sapeva scaldare sia dentro che fuori.
Quel giorno ero felice. Naturalmente, un piccolo allarme continuava a suonare nella mia mente. Sono uno studioso del clima dopo tutto, e sapevo che il 2018 era stato il quarto anno più caldo mai registrato dal periodo pre-industriale. Come risultato del clima più caldo, la stagione degli uragani del 2018 era stata la terza consecutiva con danni superiori alla media nell'Atlantico. In California, la stagione degli incendi del 2018 era stata la più distruttiva mai registrata. Anche nel mio amato Mediterraneo, i medicanes, le piogge torrenziali e le ondate estreme avevano colpito con una potenza senza precedenti. I segnali, se si voleva leggerli, erano tutti lì.
Una ragazzina svedese, Greta, aveva parlato con una forza senza precedenti di fronte alle Nazioni Unite. Li aveva avvertiti, ci aveva avvertiti. Ricordo che il suo discorso mi aveva cambiato la vita. Come scienziato, ero già impegnato a sensibilizzare l'opinione pubblica. Lo sono diventato ancora di più, e ho iniziato a cambiare le mie abitudini per ridurre le mie emissioni di carbonio. Ho cercato di convincere gli altri a fare lo stesso. Alcuni lo hanno fatto, molti no. Sicuramente, alla maggior parte dei nostri politici non importava. Non quelli degli Stati Uniti, che ospitavano alcuni dei più ostinati negazionisti climatici ai massimi livelli di governo. Non quelli in Europa, troppo occupati di fronte all'arrivo dei partiti di ultra-destra e populisti per notare che la Terra stava lentamente ma costantemente morendo.
Questo accadde prima delle grandi inondazioni in Bangladesh e Indonesia, che iniziarono verso il 2040, causando milioni di rifugiati in cerca di una nuova casa da qualche parte. Accadde prima della terribile stagione degli uragani del 2048, con cinque uragani di categoria sei che colpirono di fila i Caraibi, lasciando migliaia di morti e senzatetto. Questo prima della grande siccità in Africa, che molti pensano abbia causato le guerre civili nordafricane del 2055. I nostri politici non erano preparati a tutto questo. Dopo tutto, anche a noi non importava: seduti fuori, in una calda giornata invernale, la felicità era ancora possibile.
La vita era bella. Era allora che potevamo ancora fare qualcosa. Abbiamo fallito, e ora devo vivere gli ultimi giorni della mia vita (ho 87 anni, quindi le mie primavere stanno per finire) guardando i miei figli e nipoti negli occhi e spiegando loro perché non abbiamo agito, perché eravamo così ciechi di fronte a ciò che stava arrivando.
Vorrei poter viaggiare indietro nel tempo, e implorare il giovane me e tutti quelli che mi circondano di fare di più, di fare meglio. Sono sicuro che lotterebbero ancora di più se sapessero che tipo di cupo futuro è in gioco.
Tradotto con www.DeepL.com/Translator
The winter holidays are a typical for everyone to make a balance of the year that just went by. Scientists are, last time I checked, people, so we make balances as anyone. And, at least professionally (but almost always also personally) we make them in terms of scientific accomplishments that we achieved in this past year.
What drives me to write the achievements of this year in a public blog? At least two things.
The first is my compulsory need to do something to deal with my ever-lasting impostor syndrome. Someone might not believe this, but every year I renew my license as lifeguard just in case I will have to look for another job unexpectedly. You can make a decent summertime salary being a lifeguard for a private beach in Italy, so that is my safety net. The second is the difficulty I have to deal with the inevitable questions that arise from family and friends back home during the many dinners that characterize this period. They all know what I do, but there is always that feeling of weirdness when someone asks what did I really do this past year. Sometimes I wish I could answer that I worked in a restaurant, and that I am happy to have earned enough money this year to get that flat screen ultra-high-tech TV for Christmas. But I can’t do that, so here we go. I am also putting a google translate button, so there are no excuses: folks, if you really mean it when you ask me “what is it that you are doing?”, just read on and your curiosity will be fulfilled.
First of all, I need to write a few words about my world. Scientists are often evaluated against the scientific papers they publish, and where they publish them. There are thousands of scientific journals, probably hundreds in my field, but many aim (either openly or secretly) for the top-tier ones, such as Nature and Science. Then, there are some excellent generalist journals such as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences or Nature Communications, and many field-specific ones that present great science, that is sometimes too specific for a general audience. Another key benchmark against which we are evaluated is the funding we get to get our research going. Then there is all the rest, which is equally important: teaching, mentoring postdocs and PhD students, going to meetings to see what’s up with our peers and to keep our ideas flowing. Many scientists (including myself) try to squeeze all this into the attempt to have a quasi-normal personal life, and do everything while trying to secure a permanent position. It is not a secret that having to cope with all this for several years can cause serious mental problems. This is why there are, at present, many attempts to make academic environments more relaxed and the ‘publish or perish’ logic less compelling. Many scientists and publishing houses are, for example, trying to move away from the journal ranking system I briefly outlined above, evaluating more the scientific articles by their own merits rather than by where they are published. But there is still a long way before the system gets better, let’s hope 2018 will bring better news on this.
So, back to my year. For which concerns papers, I think it was a good one. In total, I co-authored seven papers, all of them in journals I like for their content and all of them presenting some cool ideas (well, on this I am not objective, but this is my blog, so be it). The major hype of the year is surely a paper we published in PNAS (one of the high-ranking generalist journals I cited above). The paper deals with hurricane waves that hit the Bahamas 125.000 years ago, and supposedly moved giant boulders on a 15-meters high cliff. The reason why this is important from a climate perspective was explained nicely in a news report by the Washington Post and in another one by phys.org. But to me personally, the value of this paper is another one: to do all the data collection and analysis, I had to use all the skills that I built up patiently since I started my master degree, from mapping to wave modeling. In choosing my research topics, I always followed my interests, and I was starting to think that this approach was too dispersive. But, thanks to this paper, I now see that there was a pattern in all this, which I did not really realize until this year. Even better, part of the sponsoring for this research came from a World Surf League initiative, called P.U.R.E. As I entered this domain of science thanks to my passion for surfing, and I literally watched every surf competition since I was 14 years old, this was for me a big highlight that probably went unnoticed to most. I also managed to catch a few waves one day in Eleuthera, and that was a blessing.
Another highlight came from a paper we published in the journal Coral Reefs. This is one of the specialist journals I like to read, there is plenty of great science there if your focus are, as the title says, corals. This paper is really a short note, where we show that it is technically possible to use drones and normal photo cameras to make bathymetric maps in shallow water reefs. The news of this paper was picked up by many outlets, among which ArteTV, a French-German TV. It was cool that they came to Bremen to interview me and members of my research group, so probably few million people saw the place where I sit everyday. Needless to say, it was the first time I was on TV (!).
We are following up some of the drone research with another project, that brought us to Fiji in August to see how drones can be used to map mangrove ecosystems, that are important to stabilize the coast from erosion among many other things. Besides getting all the data we needed to keep our research going, the trip to Fiji was special to me as I managed to detach from work duties one day and go surfing in one of the seven wonders of the world of surfing: cloudbreak. I stayed in the water for hours, I managed to catch two waves. Not the greatest wave count, also considering that on one I just felt on the reef. But the second wave I got, I will remember until I die: 10-something seconds of liquid perfection. As a surfer for 15+ years, with discontinuous activity due to being land-locked in Northern Germany, it is cool to know that I can manage to stay in the lineup in one of the most challenging waves in the world and come back to tell the story.
Towards the end of the year, another first time for me arrived. Thomas Lorscheid, the first PhD student I fully supervised, graduated with an excellent thesis, also putting in some exciting papers in the process. One of them was published in the journal Scientific Reports, another journal that I always read with interest. Thomas managed to use some field data and modeling to investigate changes in tides in the Last Interglacial, again 125.000 years ago. It was very cool to see that our paper came out almost simoultaneously with a paper from another research group that, in the conclusions, indicates the need for studies such as ours. The interesting thing about this is that there weren’t any contacts between the two groups while the papers were being prepared, and the results are two highly complementary pieces of work. Science at its best, I guess.
Throughout the year, I also managed to attend some very interesting meetings. It was great to go back to Columbia University in July for the Sea Level Conference. I must admit that it took me a while to digest all the new science that I saw there. Clearly, my field is moving forward at a very fast pace and there is plenty of young brilliant minds bringing new approaches in the game. In October I flew again overseas to Mexico for the PALSEA annual conference, and I met again lots of colleagues and friends working on past climates and sea levels. The highlight in this case is that I agreed to coordinate the efforts to organize the next meetings, taking over from some of the best scientists I personally know. It is a bit of a hard task, luckily I am not alone, but flanked by some of those brilliant minds I just mentioned. More news on this will come in the new year.
So, all in all, my 2017 wasn’t too bad. But when making such balances, I always tend to overlook what it took to achieve the results I just mentioned. I had to spend several weekends and nights working hard to meet deadlines, and days trying to do too many things at once. In Germany we are allowed to 30-something holiday days, I think I took maximum five or six, just because I could not disconnect from my work. I flew around a lot, and besides feeling guilty for the carbon emissions, I also re-developed an old back injury, which is now giving me a hard time every time I do not sleep in a decent bed (or every time I surf, which is worst for my pride). I spent a lot of time worrying about my future and that of the members of my group, and for this reason I spent a lot of time writing grants that I hope will be successful to keep us going further. I had to deal with failure with papers and proposals, luckily this year less than I dealt with success (but failure burns quite a bit). Some days I wondered if I am sacrificing too much (the answer was almost always ‘yes’) and if it is really worth it (again, ‘yes’).
I think I am now paying the toll of my intense year: I came back home in Italy, I relaxed for one day and I immediately got sick. It is 4 days (and counting) that I am basically in bed with a pretty bad flu that won’t go away. I think it is the way my body tells me something along these lines ‘Hey you idiot, take it easier in 2018’. Due to this, I also lost the last swell of the year in my home spot, and having to see your friends come back home with a big smile on their face after a good winter surfing sucks a lot.
I don’t have any good intent for 2018, for me good intents never really worked because I tend to forget them after one week into the new year. But for myself, I do hope to find a better work-life balance, and I wish that I will be able to keep doing what I like.
Monday afternoon, a paper I co-authored was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
There is a nice Washington Post article describing what we did in the paper.
As I had lots of videos and photos from our fieldwork, and a nice 3D model of the boulders, I decided to put in some explanatory text and make a quick video out of it. Feel free to share it!