Tuesday, September 11, 2012

AGU Newsletter. Toshio Yamagata

This interview with the Japanese scientist Toshio Yamagata was prepared by Hans von Storch in July 2012. The original has been published in the August 2012 issue of the Newsletter of the Atmospheric Science Section of the AGU.

Toshio Yamagata is currently the director of Application Laboratory at Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology. He was the Dean of School of Science of the University of Tokyo from 2009 to 2012 and after retiring from the university in 2012, he was given the title of Professor Emeritus. His has done extensive modeling and analysis work with focus on large-scale dynamical processes of the oceans and the atmosphere. He has been awarded in 2004 the American Meteorological Society’s H. U. Sverdrup Gold Medal “for his outstanding accomplishments in the study of ocean and climate dynamics, especially with respect to El Nino and air-sea interaction over the Indian Ocean.” He is a fellow of the AMS and AGU for his accomplishments and outstanding contributions to the atmospheric and oceanic sciences.

1. What would you consider the most two significant achievements in your career?
The development in the early 1980s of an instability theory (with George Philander of Princeton University) of an ocean-atmosphere coupled system to explain the evolution of El Niño/Southern Oscillation and the discovery (with Saji Hameed and young colleagues from Asia) of another ocean-atmosphere coupled mode: the Indian Ocean Dipole, based on the synthesis of ocean-atmosphere observational data, in the late 1990s. In retrospect, I think both contributed to stimulating the climate research community to deepen the understanding of climate dynamics from new viewpoints.

2. You have retired from the Tokyo University and you are now a leading scientist at JAMSTEC for climate application studies. Can you tell us a bit about the differences, both in terms of institutions and in terms of issues?
Since I started my career in GFD (geophysical fluid dynamics) in the early 1970s, I have always felt a there was a gap between my academic research and the surrounding society. Involvement in the climate research based on the background of GFD in the 1980s, at Princeton filled the gap to some extent. To proceed further in this direction, I realized the necessity of concerted action with scientists (like Roger Lukas, Jay McCreary and Gary Meyers) sharing the same idea in and out of my homeland, and I started contributing some of my energy to supporting institutional frameworks such as FRSGC (Frontier Research System for Global Change) and Earth Simulator of JAMSTEC and NASDA (now JAXA), and the Japan-US bilateral IPRC (International Pacific Research Center) at the University of Hawaii under the support of the Science and Technology Agency (called at that time). From 1997, I led a group at FRSGC composed of young active scientists mostly from abroad to develop ocean and climate models for prediction. Such extracurricular activities were compatible, despite busyness, with my concurrent university academic life for basic research and graduate/undergraduate education. Without the liberality of the University of Tokyo, this could not happen. Now I graduated from my mission in the university, and I find time to be fully involved in application studies based on ocean and climate prediction information at new JAMSTEC’s Application Lab. It is interesting, however, that the feeling of “something missing” is still left after having filled the gap perceived in my younger days. I believe this drives me further on my stage II.

3. You are Japanese – is there a difference in how atmospheric science is done in your homeland compared to the western way?
Living interdisciplinarily is rather difficult in my homeland. Also, without a strong spirit, developing one’s own idea that is different from what many people think is difficult in such a geographically small island country. I think, in my homeland, I am accepted as an oceanographer but still not accepted as a meteorologist . Perhaps, this is a general phenomenon all over the world; the smaller the village, the stricter the discipline with a long history. I believe that we need more liberal air in both infra- and supra-structures.

4. Your homeland has been hit by the tsunami in 2011, and brought the Fukushima nuclear reactor out of control. Had these events an impact on the focus of atmospheric science is Japan? 
 I strongly believe that the tragedy of 3/11 calamity was doubled by the villager mind in several related science fields including earth science. In that sense, it was partly a manmade disaster. For example, if the information from the bottom pressure gauges deployed far offshore were released immediately from the Japan Meteorological Agency to our society, thousands of lives could be saved. However, the too bureaucratic belief in the manual describing the relation between the tsunami height and the earthquake magnitude stopped the information delivery. Too much belief in the manual without understanding how they were introduced led to further disaster. The silence of scientists particularly belonging to national institutions under one too strong voice restriction (but actually not released) after the calamity lead to people losing further the confidence in science. It is not easy to regain the credit. How to behave as a scientist with expertise when facing such a disaster has now become a big issue in the academic community. This is again related to the problem that links science and society. We have realized the importance of daily activities to enlighten operational people, policy makers and, most importantly in a long run, laypersons by delivering a scientific way of thinking as well as the outcome of science.

5. When you look back in time, what where the most significant, exciting or surprising developments in atmospheric science?
I am always impressed by the rich history for modern weather forecast as foreseen by Vilhelm Bjeknes in 1904. It has been achieved by close interactions between technological growth in earth observations, meteorological innovations led by Jule Charney, the evolution of the computer science led by von Neumann, and the implementation of a information delivery system of WWW( World Weather Watch) fostered by J. F. Kennedy at the occasion of UN General Assembly in 1961. Our way of life has been completely changed after those persistent, unselfish challenges. This is one of the best examples of science innovation in our history. I am sure our seasonal climate forecast activities will keep this outstanding track.

6. Is there a politicization of atmospheric science?
Climate change and climate variations are different. Projection and prediction are different, too. The problem of climate change includes trans-science issues without validation and very much political. Seasonal climate forecast based on scientific research of climate variations is within the realm of science and technology and looks undervalued in comparison with global change issues. I think we need to pay at least equal attention to science for seasonal forecast with validation studies. This is because countries, either developed or developing, suffer serious impacts of abnormal weather and extreme events due to climate variations under the increasing pressure of global environmental change. By doing so, global change issues will find much broader support on this globe.

7. What constitutes “good” science?
 I think “good” science must be done together with active validation studies supported by technology development, leading to new knowledge as well as the improvement of our understanding. Particularly in earth science, it needs to contribute even indirectly to sustainable well-being of our habitable planet rather than just increasing our knowledge as in “pure” science.

 8. What is the subjective element in scientific practice? Does culture matter? What is the role of instinct?
To me, science is like wine. Culture is related to climate, and gives aroma in science when pursued by individuals just as terroir does. This may give us richness of styles in viewing and expressing our world under the general principles of physics and mathematics.


hvw said...

Thanks for this interview. Good questions, insightful answers. Who would not wish being able to answer #1 as clear-cut as Yamagata? #8: Almost poetry, no?

Werner Krauss said...

Same with me, thanks for another great interview. Very rich answers. It will take me a while to come to terms (or not) with this answer:
"To me, science is like wine. Culture is related to climate, and gives aroma in science when pursued by individuals just as terroir does." (even though I don't know what "terroir" means).

hvw said...

even though I don't know what "terroir" means

Hans von Storch said...

I have asked what "terroir" means - here the answer:

Terroir is a French word. It is often used by wine specialists.
Please check the following:
My current project to predict seasonal climate variations in South Africa includes studies of variable terroir impacts on wineries in the Western Cape. Also, we wish to develop a similar domestic research program for Japanese rice wine.

Werner Krauss said...

Thanks for the explanation, Toshio and Hans.

Here the main wikipedia quotes:

"Terroir (French pronunciation: [tɛʁwaʁ] from terre, "land") is the special characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place, interacting with the plant's genetics, expressed in agricultural products such as wine, coffee, tomatoes, heritage wheat and tea."

"Terroir can be very loosely translated as "a sense of place,"

"At its core is the assumption that the land from which the grapes are grown imparts a unique quality that is specific to that growing site. "

So again, to understand:

Just like climate gives terroir to the vine, culture gives terroir to science.

Good stuff to think with! There are questions coming up, but still not formed yet.

Werner Krauss said...

Here the question:

Science is like wine. Culture is not like wine: Culture creates wine according to the rules of wine making, and culture creates science according to the laws of physics and mathematics. That's why science is like wine, and culture is like climate. Correct?