Amanda Lynch

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Amanda Lynch

Professor of Geological Sciences

Mike Cohea/Brown University
Amanda Lynch says that if environmental activists continue to see climate change solely as an environmental issue, there will be little progress. Whether they know it or not, everyone has something on the line.

Most of us have been taught that there is a clear distinction between weather and climate. Weather is a day-to-day happening, studied by meteorologists; climate is about deciphering long-term patterns, studied by climate scientists.

Amanda Lynch does not make that distinction so dramatically.

The incoming professor of geological sciences holds a doctorate in meteorology. She also holds an undergraduate degree in applied mathematics. As a postdoctoral researcher, she helped devise the first models assessing how climate works in the Arctic, factoring in the effects of oceans and ice. Combine that education and experience with the growing appreciation that meteorology can extend beyond the daily weather prediction, such as projecting seasonal phenomena like El Nino cycles, and Lynch possesses a combination of skills that few others can match.

One such way she’ll bring her expertise to bear is examining the stability of ice sheets in Antarctica — a vital pursuit, as the disintegration of ice sheets projected by some models for coming centuries would raise sea levels dramatically throughout the planet. Scientists want to know whether the ice sheets are gaining or losing mass. The answer to the question involves a mix of climate science and meteorology, including the physics of melting ice and the frequency and type of storms that deliver snow.

“To me, it was seeing how the math I always loved was translated into the environment in which I was living,” Lynch said. “It’s the intellectual pleasure of seeing that equations really work in the world.”

That’s a fine path, but she’s tweaked it a bit. In 1992 as a postdoctoral researcher studying Arctic climate in Barrow, Alaska, Lynch heard from residents who complained that scientists were more interested in their models than how a changing climate was affecting locals. “They’d say, ‘We always hear how the sky is falling, how (climate in the Arctic) is the canary in the coal mine. How is any of this helping us at all?’” Lynch said. “And so I started thinking, ‘Yeah, they’re right. How is this actually helping them?’ That’s when I started trying to, I guess, retrain myself how policy is made and how science influences policy.”

Her pursuit of the intersection of science and policy has led her to speak on the role of democracy in climate change. In those talks, Lynch argues that time is short to deal with the predicted effects of global warming. Instead of seeing the solution coming from policies enacted at the national level, Lynch thinks it needs to rise from the collective will of the citizenry.

“In democratic countries, the only way that leaders make decisions at this (national) level is if their constituents push for it,” she said. “You’re not going to change a congressperson’s mind unless that congressperson feels supported in that position by constituents. If they feel they’re going to lose office, they won’t do it.”

She also believes environmental groups need to approach climate change as a multifaceted problem that demands they partner with others, including industry. “Climate change is ultimately an energy policy issue, a financial market issue, a town planning issue,” she said. “If we (environmentalists) continue to see it as just an environmental issue, then we’ll never get anywhere.”

The 45-year-old Lynch comes from Monash University in Australia, her home country. At Brown, she will be affiliated with the Environmental Change Initiative. Along with her husband, Henry Johnson, she moved to Providence with her daughters Eleanor, 10, and Brigitte, 8. “We had a good feeling about it.”

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