CU's New Research Vice Chancellor, Susan Avery, Known For Communicating About Science, Global Climate Change

Published: Sept. 6, 2004

A professor in electrical and computer engineering known for her research applications of radar in atmospheric science, Susan Avery is highly regarded among research scientists at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

But her ability to communicate the importance of science to outside funding agencies and among scientists sets her apart from many in the research community and has become one of her major strengths in the 10 years she served as director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, or CIRES.

Since 1994 when Avery took the helm of CU-Boulder's largest research institute, funding has grown from $17 million to more than $41 million, allowing CIRES to strengthen its research programs and expand its influence well beyond campus laboratories. Last month, she was appointed the university's interim dean of the Graduate School and vice chancellor for research.

As director of CIRES, Avery has supported and increased interdisciplinary research programs that have helped link campus researchers in the natural and social sciences on several long-term projects. She also has pushed for expansion of outreach programs to K-12 students and increased fellowship funding to expand research opportunities for graduate students.

In the national arena, CIRES is helping to develop a plan for the National Integrated Drought Information System to provide new drought forecasting tools and help water managers better understand climate so they can improve drought planning. Regionally, CIRES is leading the Western Water and Climate Variability project, a cooperative venture with the Western Governors Association.

Throughout her time as steward of CIRES' 550 person research and support staff, Avery has focused on improving communication of scientific principles in a field of high interest to the public and policy-makers: atmospheric change, climate studies and climate change. In 2003, while on sabbatical and working in Washington, D.C., Avery focused on the problem of scientists' failure to communicate important findings that affect climate change and global warming.

"How we respond to changes in the climate and how we use natural resources are issues that pose some very serious problems for society, yet as scientists we aren't doing enough to help people interpret these issues," Avery said.

Water use is a primary example. "Decision-makers take water away from agricultural uses and give it to municipalities and industry, which has a lot of long-term implications that sometimes aren't addressed," she said. "By taking water out of agricultural use, you lose the flexibility to use it in other ways in the future and you increase your risk and vulnerability in dry years, as the West is experiencing now."

Inadequate communication between scientists and the public also can exacerbate problems such as resource allocation, she said. "As scientists, we're sometimes not answering the questions the policy-makers are trying to ask," said Avery. "We need to help frame questions about the environment so our scientific information can be better used to help make decisions.

"We also need to do less of what I refer to as 'the scientific journal approach' to issues and more to communicate better with the public," she said.

Avery has tried to do that as president of the 11,000-member American Meteorological Society, which publishes several scientific journals, sponsors 12 conferences, promotes public-private sector cooperation on climate issues and provides educational programs for academics, professionals, students and weather enthusiasts. She was president-elect last year and will serve two years as past president of AMS after this year.

While leading programs at CIRES and AMS, Avery has kept her hand in several research projects, including studies of precipitation patterns and changes in atmospheric circulations in the tropics and polar regions. Avery and Research Associates Rob Schaffer and Diego Janches of CIRES are using new radar instrumentation at a NOAA field site in Platteville, Colo., to perfect new ways of using radar to study the atmosphere.

Avery's team has applied radar to the study of meteor trails to determine the variability of winds in the upper atmosphere. By studying meteor flux, she hopes to learn more about atmospheric composition and circulation to find out "how things are moving around in the upper atmosphere -- and how circulation patterns may be different than in the past," she said.

Meteors are the source for metallic ions, for example, that act as "seeds" for noctilucent clouds, the silvery-blue polar mesospheric clouds that normally appear in the Arctic, Avery said. The clouds have begun appearing further south, and may signal changes in the upper atmosphere.

Another research focus is the study of atmospheric tides, or wave motions, in the upper atmosphere that are produced by heating both from the sun and the Earth's surface.

"These waves are a dominant feature in the upper atmosphere that are global in extent and are affected by global absorption of heat and heating from the surface," Avery said. "We need to learn how these atmospheric tides are changing and how the lower and upper atmospheres are coupled together."

Changes in the waves, apparent in the appearance of noctilucent clouds at lower latitudes, may be an effect of global warming and may indicate "that global warming is manifesting itself in the upper atmosphere before we see it in the lower atmosphere," Avery said.

"Global warming is a big experiment that we're doing on a global scale," she said. "We need to decide how much information it will take before we can begin taking action to reverse this process. We'll never understand the warming process perfectly and if we try to wait until we do, it may be too late to make a difference."