Written By a Professional:
By Patrick Grenier; Since 2011, I have been a research scientist with Ouranos, an organization dedicated to studying climate change issues. Ouranos is based in Montréal, but its collaborative network reaches everywhere in Québec and beyond. My job is to supply what we call climate scenarios to other researchers (our users), and to improve methods used to produce these scenarios. A scenario represents the plausible evolution of climate with time. Since we cannot predict exact climates of years to come, we need to consider several most likely outcomes. For example, we can assume that going from the climatological periods 1971–2000 to 2041–2070, it is highly likely that temperatures in southern Québec will rise 1 to 5 o C. The nature of the climate system, our prediction methods, and the uncertainties on future anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions prevent us from gaining more accuracy. But we at least have a concrete range of values. We also supply scenarios for variables such as precipitations, wind, snow cover, etc.
Contact with users coming from a wide range of fields constitutes one motivating aspect of my job. For example, I once supplied temperature scenarios to a researcher working on the relationship between heat waves and mortality in Montréal. Another collaborator is studying flooding risks progression near rivers like the Chaudière and the Richelieu, and applying it to insurance policies. I also participate in a project aimed at assessing climate impact on the reproduction of snow geese. Other projects focus on Saint Lawrence River shoreline erosion, insects plaguing agriculture, and energy demand at Hydro-Québec during cold waves. Our users’ goal is often to ensure that Québec infrastructures and the ecological functions of the environment remain adequate in the face of the most likely climate. With each incoming project, the needed climatological information varies, which gives me the opportunity to learn about many different fields.
I hold a highly specialized job. People often ask me what type of studies leads to what I do. More than one road leads to this profession, as can testify my colleagues who followed different academic paths. But one thing is certain, the job requires many years of university-level studies. As for me, it all started with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in physics, from Laval University and McGill University, respectively. To me, physics proved an extraordinary learning experience. It teaches us to use abstract laws of logic and mathematics to infer notions from any real system. You may find the path difficult. Basic systems studied in high school or cégep may lack excitement (springs, projectiles, condensers, etc.), but as you delve into new notions (celestial bodies, relativity, chaos, etc.), it becomes more intriguing and even philosophical. In directing my doctoral studies towards environmental sciences (at UQAM, Université du Québec à Montréal), I quickly realized that methods learned in physics proved applicable here. My doctoral thesis focused on the impact of pollution on Arctic clouds. I then worked as a post-doctoral fellow in Belgium to study the climatological impacts of aviation.
Now that I have emphasized the importance of a solid scientific background to succeed in a field such as mine, I need to stress the core role of two other aspects: passion and rigour.
In the case of passion, I have to say that to me the atmosphere constitutes a fascinating system. Its properties, may they be luminous (rainbows, sky colours, northern lights, etc.) or dynamic (tornadoes, hurricanes, jet stream, etc.), are spectacular. Its environmental issues (the ozone layer, acid rain, smog, etc.) reach right into our fundamental values. Climate change adds as well to the challenge as it touches the technological, social, and geopolitical aspects of our lives. If I had not felt passionate about the environment, I might not have found happiness at my job and I might have quit a long time ago. Passion can continue to grow through curiosity. I therefore encourage young scientists, no matter what field they choose, to remain curious. They should strive to acquire a comprehensive view of their future domain of expertise. Read, read, and read some more. Learn about all aspects of your field. Texts not pertaining directly to your current studies or projects may help you understand, maybe five years from now, a concept that you did not expect.
As for rigour, suffice it to say that climatologists produce information on which individuals and governments often base crucial decisions. Rigour is therefore of the utmost importance. Being rigorous does not come effortlessly. You will need to work hard to avoid falling back on easy solutions. But others will recognize your work ethics, and your reputation for integrity will grow. In the long run, the satisfaction of a job well done, most likely already experienced in school, will also build a healthy self-confidence.