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Unfolding the Mood of the Monsoon: Interview with Dr. Neena Joseph Mani  Apr 30, 2018

From being a bachelor student in physics to a researcher in climate science, Dr. Neena Joseph Mani’s career story takes us through the vagaries of the weather and the means to understanding the same. At IISER Pune’s Earth and Climate Science discipline that investigates systems with timescales as varied as hundreds and thousands of years to millennia, Neena is working on getting a better handle on weather prediction and understanding the evolution of monsoon. With editorial guidance from Pranali Patil and Shanti Kalipatnapu, BS MS students Surabhi K.S. and Sankalp Choudhuri present us this interview that took shape over an afternoon chat with the researcher.

Please tell us about your schooling and academics that led up to a research career.

My schooling up until graduation was in Kerala. I received my bachelor’s degree in physics and master’s degree in meteorology at Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT). I then moved to Pune for my PhD in the area of atmospheric science at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM), which is one of the premier institutes in the field in India.

You studied physics as an undergraduate, what led you to climate science?

Around the time I was to choose the area for my Master’s, I did not want to follow the conventional streams; I wanted to try out something new and different. I came to know about a course in meteorology at Cochin University. Till then, I was not much aware of this field, but as I started learning it, I developed a keen interest in the area.

We learnt about the physics behind atmospheric processes like cloud or rain development and we also learnt climate science, which was taught more like statistics. Now, the approach to studying climate has evolved. Studying the Earth system in its entirety has caught on, over the last 10 years or so. To understand the climate system, it is very important to integrate our understanding of meteorology, oceanography, geology, geophysics, etc, rather than compartmentalizing these areas.

A genuine interest begins when you start doing research in a field and go deeper into a problem trying to understand it. This is when you are more exposed to the challenges in the area.

Could you tell us about the work you carried out during your PhD?

I worked on understanding the predictability of different atmospheric scales of variability and exploring if there is any change in predictability. We mostly analyse and try to extract signals from observed as well as model-generated data.

One of the topics I worked on during my PhD was to find out if there is a chaotic attractor for the monsoon. We used nonlinear dynamical approaches for reconstructing the phase space of evolution of the monsoon and tried to extract the underlying attractor dimensions for the monsoon. Through this, we were looking for the fastest growing modes of the monsoon weather system. We attempted using observational data to reconstruct phase space of monsoon evolution. We found that the predictability was actually declining in the recent decades. One of the caveats of this approach was our data spanned just 100-150 years, while for this kind of complex analysis, one needs very long data without gaps, say fifty thousand years.

Nevertheless, it offered a different way of looking at predictability. The conventional approach of studying weather predictability through perturbing a condition in a model does not always represent the atmosphere; for that, one needs to use real-time data which in turn requires non-linear analytical approaches.

So it is more of an observational inference, like in the case of astronomy. In physics, we can actually change the conditions in experiments but here we cannot do so.

That is right. Nature is your laboratory; you just get the data and try to make sense of it. The most challenging part is that you cannot carry out any real-experiments here. There are a lot of inverse theory approaches, like inverse modeling where you have the output and you try to infer the forcing and initial conditions which produced it. Most of the data analysis we do is actually based on this idea.

This field mainly comprises of modelling complex systems and analyzing the results obtained.

That is right. We use numerical models for making predictions.

In my current work, I use climate models to understand the different feedback mechanisms that affect the Indian monsoon, namely, Atlantic variability, Pacific variability and the Indian ocean variability. In order to understand how the monsoon will behave in a future climate, it is very important to know the atmospheric and oceanic feedbacks which influence the monsoon. Focusing on simulating past climate scenarios, we try to understand feedbacks in the system. Some of this work is in collaboration with my colleague Dr. Gyana Ranjan Tripathi where his group will work on reconstructing past monsoon and together we hope to get a better understanding of the natural variability of monsoon.

What aspects of the study of climate science do you like the most?

While there hasn’t been a particular instance or feature that inspired me to take up this field, what I like about it is that you can actually relate to things, it’s not abstract, you can see or feel or experience it all the time. It is an interdisciplinary area with real-time day-to-day basis influence on everybody’s life. Whatever little bit of research you do contributes to the real world.

What has been one of the most unexpected or surprising findings in your area?

Things are still evolving in this discipline, there are many interesting research works, which are trying to explain different atmospheric phenomena. However, if I’m to speak about one particular study which fascinated me, it would be that on the deterministic predictability of the atmospheric system by Edward Lorenz. The climate system is very complex, composed of interacting systems such as the atmosphere, ocean and land. Understanding the predictability of different scales of weather and climate variability has really appealed to me.

Is there anything you would like to change or improve how research is carried out in your field?

Climate change being a popular topic, one finds a large number of people working in this area just for this reason. There are many unanswered questions in climate science, gaps in the theoretical understanding of different atmospheric phenomena, which require more attention.

How has been your experience working at IISER Pune?

It has been great so far. Teaching has been definitely a different experience. I always wanted to have some teaching component along with my research work, which was one of the main reasons that I wanted to take up a job in IISER.

If the students are exposed to science in a holistic way like the in our department at IISER Pune, it would create more awareness and excitement for the subject. Here at Earth and Climate Science discipline of IISER Pune, we have geophysics, geology, and atmospheric science all being taught under one umbrella--one of the few places in India offering this sort of combination to learn from.

I have colleagues from very diverse backgrounds and disciplines. Interacting with them, having seminars and other events really excites me and helps me gain more knowledge about the other areas.

It has been really rewarding to be in my own country and do something that I like.

- Interview by Surabhi K.S. and Sankalp Choudhuri; Photo Courtesy: Science Media Centre, IISER Pune

 

 

 

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