How Scott Collis Is Harnessing New Data To Improve Climate Models

Scott Collis
Joel Kimmel

Each year, Popular Science seeks out the brightest young scientists and engineers and names them the Brilliant Ten. Like the 110 honorees before them, the members of this year’s class are dramatically reshaping their fields–and the future. Some are tackling pragmatic questions, like how to secure the Internet, while others are attacking more abstract ones, like determining the weather on distant exoplanets. The common thread between them is brilliance, of course, but also impact. If the Brilliant Ten are the faces of things to come, the world will be a safer, smarter, and brighter place.–The Editors

Scott Collis

Argonne National Laboratory


Harnessing new data to improve climate models

Clouds are one of the great challenges for climate scientists. They play a complex role in the atmosphere and in any potential climate-change scenario. But rudimentary data has simplified their role in simulations, leading to variability among climate models. Scott Collis discovered a way to add accuracy to forecasts of future climate—by tapping new sources of cloud data.

Collis has extensive experience watching clouds, first as a ski bum during grad school in Australia and then as a professional meteorologist. But when he took a job at the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research, he realized there was an immense source of cloud data that climate modelers weren’t using: the information collected for weather forecasts. So Collis took on the gargantuan task of building open-access tools that convert the raw data from radar databases into formats that climate modelers can use. In one stroke, Collis unlocked years of weather data. “We were able to build such robust algorithms that they could work over thousands of radar volumes without human intervention,” says Collis.

When the U.S. Department of Energy caught wind of his project, it recruited him to work with a new radar network designed to collect high-quality cloud data from all over the globe. The network, the largest of its kind, isn’t complete yet, but already the data that Collis and his collaborators have collected is improving next-generation climate models.

Click here to see more from our annual celebration of young researchers whose innovations will change the world. This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Popular Science.


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