Profiles in Climate: Sylvia Dee

  • 1 December 2020
Profiles in Climate: Sylvia Dee

“Everyone here is smart. Distinguish yourself by being kind.” – Emily Bernhardt, ecologist and biogeochemist

Those are words to live by for Dr. Sylvia Dee, a climate scientist funded by the NOAA Climate Program Office’s Climate Observations and Monitoring Program and head of the Climate, Water, and Energy Lab at Rice University.

Path to a Climate Career

Dee grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, surrounded by state parks, and during her childhood she traveled often to the American Southwest and her father’s home country of Ireland. She developed a love for the great outdoors through these adventures. She did not, however, consider a career in Earth sciences until she was about halfway through her undergraduate education at Princeton University. Having switched from chemical engineering to environmental engineering, she took a climate dynamics class in the geosciences department, which inspired her to apply to study climate science in graduate school.

For her PhD at the University of Southern California, Dee studied paleoclimatology, which uses “proxies,” or indirect records of climate information preserved in physical items like corals, ice cores, and tree rings, to study ancient climates. She worked with water isotopes to “build bridges between paleoclimate data and climate model output,” which makes it easier to use computer models to study ancient climates. Today, she still uses water isotopes as a study tool, since they can help improve how climate models represent things like convection and cloud cover, and provide a common language between paleoclimate proxies.

Current Research

Dee has a large, fascinating paleoclimate research portfolio. Recently, she co-authored two papers studying the “Common Era” of climate, which refers to the past two thousand years. “It’s an interesting period to study,” says Dee, “because up until the Industrial Revolution, the climate was pretty quiescent. There wasn’t a lot of external forcing on the climate system, with the exception of volcanic eruptions, and so we can study impacts of volcanic eruptions on climate with relatively little background noise. The other thing we can study effectively in the last two thousand years is natural variability in the climate system, such as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation and the North Atlantic Oscillation. Because there was very little influence on climate from humans during this period until about 1850.” Currently, she also has a paleoclimate project reconstructing temperatures in Africa over the last twenty thousand years and comparing model simulations to data we have from big African lakes to see if climate models are accurately simulating temperature change in Africa. “We’re using these climate models to simulate the future,” explains Dee, “so if they can’t get the magnitude of temperature change that we reconstruct in the past, we have to reevaluate their physics.”

Dee explores topics beyond paleoclimate. She has a postdoc researching the risk to coral reefs in the Gulf Mexico along the U.S. coast through 2100. These reefs may not be as famous as those off Australia and in the Caribbean, but they are critical to the Gulf economy and ecosystem. “We’re trying to understand the rate at which they’re likely to experience bleaching events and the timing of that over the next century. For the Gulf of Mexico, the rise in temperature is more damaging and is happening faster than ocean acidification. So, the primary harm over the next hundred years is likely to be primarily driven by temperature changes.”

Scientists studying a bleaching event at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, 100 miles off the coast of Galveston. Photo credit: NOAA

Mentorship and Outreach

In addition to her research, Dee gives back to her community by mentoring undergraduate and graduate students and participating in outreach activities involving K-12 students. She has worked with the Girl Scouts of America since her days as a postdoctoral researcher at Brown University, delivering speeches and running workshops at leadership conferences.

Recently, she ran an Earth Day event at Rice University for 4th-6th grade Girl Scouts. The girls participated in orienteering—where players use a map compass to navigate between points—made crafts depicting the geologic time scale, toured lab facilities, and played “energy balance tag,” where players representing greenhouse gases trap and accumulate other players representing infrared radiation, making it steadily harder for infrared radiation to escape as greenhouse gas players accumulate.

This year, Dee delivered a keynote address at a Science Olympiad event hosted by Rice University, where she shared her belief that the climate crisis will require an interdisciplinary, all-hands-on-deck response. Her favorite part of her K-12 outreach is encouraging hope despite the climate crisis. “I think the most rewarding thing about working with young people is that it’s easy to lose people when you just talk about the negative impacts,” she says. “It’s much easier to carry them through when you can say ‘You can solve this, you can be part of the solution, there’s so many different ways you can work on this problem.’”

Remarkably, Dee also finds the time amid teaching, mentoring, and research to speak to the media about her climate research, and she possesses the rare faculty for communicating complex findings in plain, universal language. Her science interpretation and commentary have appeared in The Houston Chronicle, NPR, and Texas Monthly. Dee believes that climate scientists should be bolder in their public statements of climate risk. “Climate scientists have historically been somewhat conservative about their estimates of how fast things will change and how extreme those changes will be. But what we’re finding out is that those changes are occurring much faster than we predicted. And the impacts are all around us already. So, I think we can and should be more assertive about the risks.”

The embedded pebbles and dingy ice tell researchers that this portion of the ice core is from the bottom of the glacier, right above bedrock. This chunk comes from the first ice core drilled at Mt. Hunter, Alaska; the core's total length was 682 feet. Photo credit: Mike Waszkiewicz.

Dee’s multidimensional career, studded with achievement, is ideal for science biography. Undoubtedly, the next chapter in her story will be just as compelling.

The NOAA Climate Program Office’s Climate Observations and Monitoring program supports continuing, focused activities at universities, private research companies, and government laboratories to leverage NOAA's large volume of observational platforms, ranging from in-situ to remote datasets, and paleoclimate datasets. 

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