Interview with Professor John Sweeney
Director of ICARUS, NUI Maynooth
When did you first become interested in Meteorology?
I never consider myself primarily as a meteorologist, rather as a climatologist. The two are very distinctive disciplines and I don’t think climatologists generally make good meteorologists, and vice versa. I think my interest in climate was stimulated by the quest for spatial order which geographers have. I found the concept of climate variation over space in response to varying controls to be a fascinating idea as a school pupil originally. Later on, making practical observations of weather proved thought-provoking and the link between conceptual aspects and practical observations is ‘I think’ the most important educational pillar for any scientific discipline.
What research are you currently involved in and can you give us a short explanation of what you are finding?
Most of the current research in ICARUS relates to adaptation to climate change in Ireland. For this, the best future-modelling of climate scenarios is a prerequisite. We are looking at a range of model approaches, both dynamical downscaling and statistical downscaling, to provide input for impact models. The chief concerns at the moment are in projecting future stream flow and flood conditions, biodiversity changes and coastal planning issues. Of course, aspects such as the economic costs of climate change, governance issues and the potential impacts on sectors such as tourism, agriculture, soils, as well as changes in the incidence of pests and diseases, also figure prominently. In general, we are finding that if we in Ireland can have the vision to take good decisions early, and use the precautionary principle, we can save a lot of unnecessary expenditure in future years. This would enable Ireland to not become a victim of climate change but remain a competitive country as climate changes around us. However, handling, and communicating uncertainty to decision makers, especially with the current short term focus on the economic situation is proving difficult.
Do you think Irish people have a good understanding of climate change and what adapting as a country to climate change might entail?
I think most Irish people have a gut feeling that the way we operate today is not sustainable. But it is certainly hard to persuade them to grasp the nettle on climate change. Understandably so in the present economic situation, their priorities tend to focus on short term necessities like employment and a desire to attain a higher standard of living based on more consumption of resources such as energy. Powerful interest groups are very persuasive in convincing people that climate change either is not going to happen or that adaptation will cost the earth, or at least their cattle herd! This is a long way from the truth, and sadly the message that gets listened to at the moment is one lacking in vision and indicative of poor leadership from above. Unfortunately it may take a major climate event to change perceptions and tilt the public consensus towards meaningful adaptation policies. This has happened in the past for example with air pollution and one good thing about a small country is the speed with which it can move when public attitudes change.
You’ve written and reviewed many publications on meteorology and climate – what book would you recommend for those who have a general interest and want to improve their knowledge of the subject?
One of the most stimulating texts I found over the years was ‘Climate, History and the Modern World’ by the late Hubert Lamb. It’s rather dated now, but expresses beautifully the links between climate and society which we often forget exist. Lamb was, I believe, in many ways the person who raised the consciousness of many towards this relationship and of the implications of climate change in general. He also worked briefly for Met Éireann before founding the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, which was the prototype for many such institutes around the world. His ability to tie together climate events from around the world into a ‘macro’ view was something I always greatly admired and I guess he would be my ‘climate hero’.
What weather proverb would you stake your reputation on?
“Mare's tails and mackerel scales make tall ships take in their sails” (The internet is wonderful!)
What type of weather most interests you e.g. rain, wind, thunderstorms?
Living in Ireland it has to be rain. The changes from place to place due to the topography of the island, the seasonal changes, the sheer unpredictability at times – for a small island the rainfall climatology is a lifetime study in itself.
What is your favourite anecdote/joke about the weather or climate?
It’s a bit of a college joke! What happens when the fog lifts in California? UCLA.
What other interests do you have outside of your work?
Not enough, as my waistline will testify to. I used to play golf and tennis but am increasingly reduced to the occasional bit of fishing.
Who would you like to have at your dream dinner party?
Some climate sceptics would be nice – I could give them a very special main course!
But on the positive side someone like Nelson Mandela would be great!