Ambarish Karmalkar: A Model Science Communicator

Geosciences professor Ambarish Karmalkar is answering some of the most pressing questions about regional climate change–and he is doing so in a way that incorporates science communication practices.  Although he is most well-versed in the physical sciences aspects of climate change, holding degrees in physics, astronomy, and geosciences, he is using his time as a Metcalf Institute Science Communication Identities Project fellow to develop his science communication skills and his work as a science translator.

While climate change is a global phenomenon, the ways it manifests at the regional level are key for informing local adaptation and management decisions.  Developing and running climate models is one way to understand and predict the effects of climate change.  “As I started studying climate science, I became really interested in climate modeling because of my training in physics and mathematics,” said Karmalkar.  “My PhD project was about using a high-resolution numerical model to simulate the climate of Central America to understand how it is impacted by climate change.  The climate of Central America is affected by both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, which give rise to perpetual cloud cover and dense forests on one side of the Central American Cordillera and dry regions on the other.  The research question focused on evaluating the impact of  future warming on these microclimate zones along the mountain slopes and the resulting implications for biodiversity in the area.”  Karmalkar has been pursuing research on regional climate change ever since.

Since completing his PhD, Karmalkar has focused his research on many aspects of climate modeling and on studying regional climate in different parts of the world, including the northeast US.  “Coastal regions of the northeastern US have warmed substantially more than the interior parts.  Much of coastal New England has seen temperatures rising by over 2°C relative to pre-industrial times–especially in the summer–whereas the interior parts of the northeastern US have warmed by only about 1°C.  So the question is why is that happening,” he says.  Karmalkar has noticed a relationship between ocean warming in the Gulf of Maine region and land warming along the coast over the last century, which he described in a study published in 2021.  “Now I am trying to figure out whether that pattern of warming is captured by climate models and how that pattern may change in the future,” he says.  “The models tell us how things are going to change in the future, but we have to test their reliability and determine how confident we can be about model projections.”

Modeling generates a lot of data for a large set of climate variables and requires a significant amount of data analysis.  Karmalkar spends most of his time analyzing large datasets using Python.  “Working with very big datasets involves lots of data processing, using statistical analysis and machine learning techniques to extract useful information, and then visualizations. I rely a lot on visualizing climate data because I’m trying to understand how winds move, how temperatures vary over a certain region, what rainfall patterns look like in coastal areas. It’s all about creating effective visualizations to describe how different climate variables vary across space and time,” Karmalkar says.

However, Karmalkar’s work is much more than just climate modeling and data analysis.  “There are two components to my research. One is the foundational science piece, which involves studying climate dynamics and climate change from the physical sciences perspective.  And then the other is producing and communicating societally relevant climate information that helps inform adaptation decisions. This piece involves collaborating with people who use climate information to make decisions related to assessing vulnerabilities to climate hazards, planning for impacts on water resources, protecting wildlife etc.,” Karmalkar explains.  He identifies as a “climate science translator,” meaning that he translates his research into digestible, relevant, and useful information for stakeholders such as planners, state officials, and other scientists.  “It’s not helpful if I simply hand over climate projections to people.  For that climate information to be useful, I need to have conversations with the users of climate data to understand what their needs are. There needs to be this back and forth among the climate scientists producing climate projections and the people who are going to use those projections,” says Karmalkar. 

Karmalkar wanted to take his science communication skills to the next level.  He applied for Metcalf Institute’s Science Communication Identities Project (SCIP) Fellowship and was named as one of the 2024 fellows.  The SCIP Fellowship is a one-year professional development opportunity for pre-tenure faculty who identify as underrepresented racial or ethnic minorities.  Karmalkar’s time working at the Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst introduced him to the importance of science communication within his job, making him eager to broaden his skillset.  “I worked with ecologists and hydrologists on incorporating climate data in their models and worked with managers and stakeholders tackling conservation issues in the northeast US,” says Karmalkar.  His climate dynamics research focusing on the northeast US has also received press and media attention. “While I have been engaging with stakeholders and doing media interviews for some time now, I’ve never been trained as a climate or science communicator.”  The theme of this year’s fellowship is water, which falls directly into Karmalkar’s research interests.  “When I looked at this opportunity, it was a no brainer, especially because I’m interested in science communication.  It’s something that I’ve been doing for a while and will continue to do throughout my career,” he says.   

Karmalkar is looking to have an impact beyond just his research interests.  He is hoping to bring the science communications skills that he is developing through the SCIP Fellowship to building and cultivating relationships with other professionals–scientists, planners, and local officials–working on regional climate change issues.  “As I start working on new projects at URI, I hope to implement things that I learn through this fellowship in my day-to-day climate work with scientists and stakeholders, and also with engaging the general public.  Through the SCIP fellowship, I hope I will acquire the necessary tools and skills to become an effective science communicator,” he said.