Karen McKinnon

2009 NOAA Hollings Scholar

Climate change attribution

Karen by a plaque showing the Keeling CurveAfter receiving the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Hollings Scholarship, Karen McKinnon had the chance to choose a NOAA office anywhere in the country to spend a summer doing research. After ruling out the majority of geographic locations available, she decided that a research project in Seattle studying climate would be ideal. Karen fortuitously found JISAO as an institute that fit the bill, and has had the unique and rewarding opportunity to work with Phil Mote and Nick Bond on questions of climate change attribution.

The research question framing her summer study was simple: Did anthropogenic twentieth century climate change increase the probability of drought in the Northwest? More specifically, the question focused on the severe drought in 2001 caused by low winter precipitation. Using model run output from the ClimatePrediction.net Seasonal Attribution Project, she examined temperature and precipitation distributions in the region. The simulations were generally grouped into two categories: anthropogenic simulations that captured contemporary conditions, and non-anthropogenic simulations that captured a hypothetical climate system that would have occurred if humans had not emitted greenhouse gases in the twentieth century. Across both categories, there were over 10,000 simulations. The large number of simulations allowed Karen to study the tails of Karen hiking and flexing musclesdistributions in order to determine if anthropogenic climate change led to a shift in probability of extreme precipitation events like the 2001 drought.

While her summer research was intellectually stimulating and enjoyable, working with data and coding on a computer does not make for photogenic research. The images on this page are from fieldwork in Hawaii, including a very exciting visit to the Mauna Loa Observatory, site of the research for the construction of the Keeling Curve (above).

During her time in Seattle, Karen did much more than work. She enjoyed frequenting farmers' markets, going to folk and bluegrass concerts, learning to square dance, cycling, and hiking in the beautiful Washington mountains. Next year, she will return to Harvard for her senior year where she will be writing a thesis about the causes of polar amplification of climate change. After college, she presently hopes to continue in graduate school towards a Ph.D., but is open to whatever exciting opportunities happen to come along.