‘Born scientist’ focuses on the weather and climate

Emily Becker, an associate scientist at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, specializes in sub-seasonal and seasonal climate prediction and predictability.
By Robert C. Jones Jr.

Emily Becker, an associate scientist at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, specializes in sub-seasonal and seasonal climate prediction and predictability.

‘Born scientist’ focuses on the weather and climate

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
Rosenstiel School researcher Emily Becker is part of a dream team of scientists that will present its research at the University of Miami’s climate symposium.

Hurricane Gloria’s powerful winds and storm surge had been battering the Northeast for hours. Then, suddenly, the cyclone’s rage subsided as its eye, a roughly circular area of light winds and fair weather at the center of all hurricanes, passed over the region. 

That was 10-year-old Emily Becker’s chance, so the New Hampshire youngster took advantage of the situation, grabbing the leash of her uncle’s Airedale Terrier, Becky, and taking the dog outside for a walk. 

“I still have very vivid memories of walking down the road with my uncle’s dog, with conditions outside just as calm as can be,” recalled Becker, who managed to make it back inside just before the storm’s intensity resumed. “Gloria actually managed to maintain a fairly cohesive structure even into inland New England, so I could see the edge of the eye, and that was pretty cool.” 

You might call it Becker’s watershed moment, the point in her life when she knew she wanted to learn more about weather and climate. 

And, she did just that. 

Today, as an associate scientist at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, Becker specializes in sub-seasonal and seasonal climate prediction and predictability, studying and making long-term forecast projections that extend as much as a year into the future.

Will next winter be warmer than average? Will we experience more rain than usual during the summer of 2020? “Our focus is more seasonal than just a typical short-term weather forecast,” explained Becker, who spent 10 years at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center before coming to the University. 

But seeing that far into the future can be difficult. “We get so many different conflicting physical signals, making our long-term projections challenging from a scientific standpoint,” said Becker, who conducts the bulk of her research at the Rosenstiel School-based NOAA Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies.

She and other scientists in her field have a powerful tool at their disposal that helps improve the odds of accurate long-range forecasting. 

The North American Multi-Model Ensemble (NMME)—which her colleague, Ben Kirtman, CIMAS director and professor of atmospheric sciences, helped develop—is a seasonal forecasting system that consists of several different models from a conglomerate of North American modeling centers such as NOAA, NASA, Environment and Climate Change Canada, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and others. 

“The best analogy is that it’s like using a group of people to reach a consensus,” said Becker, who has been involved with NMME since its inception in 2011, including development, operational production, and support for the scientific community. “A team, that collection of individuals, is much more reliable than any one person.” 

She also takes a close look at El Niño for her long-term predictions because she’s well aware that the climate phenomenon, in which ocean surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific become warmer than normal, can affect weather patterns around the globe. 

With NOAA and NASA reporting that 2019 was the second-hottest year ever, her research on extreme climate is more critical. 

“It’s hard to make confident predictions, but oftentimes we can get a sense of what there’s a better chance of,” said Becker. “We can’t say definitively, for example, that yes, we’re going to have terrible floods next season. But we might be able to get a heads up that there’s a higher likelihood than normal. And getting that prediction ahead of time will help decision-makers and emergency managers put resources in place earlier.” 

Becker is part of a dream team of scientists that will present its research at the Miami Climate Symposium 2020: Predicting and Living with Extremes, Jan. 22–24. 

The three-day summit, which will include two days of scientific talks at the Rosenstiel School and culminate with a public forum on Friday, Jan. 24 on the Coral Gables campus, will explore how hurricanes, storm surge, coastal flooding, and other weather phenomena are exacerbated by climate change. The conference will also examine adaptation policies and strategies and assess responses to extreme events at the local level. 

Becker will give a talk on how effective the NMME can be in predicting extreme warm, cold, and dry seasons. “Are the models any good at looking forward at and seeing extreme seasons ahead of time? That’s what we’ll explore,” she explained. 

She’s from a family of farmers that traces its profession back 400 years. Her grandfather owned the classic New Hampshire farm. “Pigs, crops, dairy—he did it all,” she said. “And weather was always utterly critical to him, as it is for the entire agricultural sector.”

Becker describes herself as “a born scientist.” 

“I was always very interested in how things work,” she said, “and you don’t get more complicated than the weather and atmospheric dynamics.”