Elizabeth Barnes receives AGU Turco Lectureship award for climate science

A black-and-white photo of Libby Barnes, associate professor of Atmospheric Science
Libby Barnes, associate professor of Atmospheric Science

Though it has been only eight years since Associate Professor Elizabeth Barnes earned her Ph.D., she already has significantly impacted her field and assembled a talented research group at the forefront of climate science. Recognizing her climate science research and advances, the atmospheric sciences section of the American Geophysical Union has awarded Barnes the Future Horizons in Climate Science: Turco Lectureship.

The Turco Lecture is intended to identify future areas of research for solving the problem of global warming and related issues. Barnes will present the lecture during the AGU Fall Meeting in December.

In nominating Barnes for the award, Tim Woollings, an Oxford associate professor in physical climate science, cited the quality and quantity of her work. Her research already has achieved high impact, he noted, with 19 of her 79 peer-reviewed papers receiving more than 50 citations each.

“She has advanced the field of atmospheric science in these few years more than many of us do in our whole careers,” Woollings wrote in his nomination letter. “Her work is trustworthy, authoritative and expertly targeted to make real, concrete advances in our understanding of the climate system.”

Ted Shepherd, professor of climate science at the University of Reading, said he nominated Barnes because “she is an important influencer in how the community needs to approach the problem of large-scale atmospheric circulation and its role in climate change.”

Climate science often is accompanied by competing claims and soundbite-style headlines that do a disservice to society. Barnes’ work quiets the noise and helps the field progress, Shepherd said.

“Credibly representing scientific knowledge in the face of what is sometimes considerable uncertainty is a major challenge for climate scientists,” he said. “It is not enough to stick to what we know with confidence, yet we must avoid overstatement. Dr. Barnes has embraced this challenge and is an exemplar of how to walk this line.”

Barnes looks forward to sharing her recent research focus in the lecture.

“I hope to discuss new tools for Earth system understanding and prediction, with a focus on machine learning techniques as an exciting frontier to advancing both how we do science/explore data, and the science itself,” she said.

Barnes is a partner in a new $20 million NSF-funded AI research center that will expand how artificial intelligence is used in environmental research. Her research group uses neural networks to study and predict climate.

A neural network is a series of algorithms that can efficiently sort through data and recognize patterns. Barnes’ group trains neural networks to identify changes in Earth’s environmental systems, compared to natural variability. They also apply this machine-learning technique to prediction. Neural networks can sift through a sea of data to create skillful forecasts on the challenging subseasonal to decadal scale.

Barnes said the award means a lot to her and it validates her recent studies.

“The past few years my research interests have evolved to place heavy emphasis on the analysis tools we use to do climate science. I truly believe that exploring these tools and their uses is incredibly important to advancing the field,” she said. “Receiving this award suggests that at least someone in the community thinks these efforts are worthwhile!”

Barnes credits her group and colleagues for the honor.

“I really see this award as recognition of the amazing group of people I have been fortunate enough to work with in recent years. I have so much fun thinking about new science and analysis tools, and that is because I get to do this thinking alongside wonderful and brilliant people!”