Ice storms, hurricanes and tornadoes don’t faze this Department

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Dr. John Gyakum, Chair of AOS, sees more career paths opening to graduates as concerns about extreme weather mount.

What is the weather going to be like tomorrow? This winter? How about ten years from now? How serious are the threats posed by climate change, and what, if anything, can we do to prepare for them?

Studying these difficult questions – and educating people about possible answers — is the focus of McGill’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences (AOS). “We are responsible for providing society with a scientific basis for understanding weather systems and climate variability,” says Dr. John Gyakum, Chair of AOS. “We study and teach weather analysis and forecasting, but we also do numerical weather predictions, which involve a great deal of computer-based research. We have a wide range of interests, including climate change, atmospheric chemistry, physical oceanography, numerical and weather systems modeling, extreme weather and air quality.”

Providing guidance on policy decisions

“All of these topics are important to society, so part of our task is to provide guidance to those responsible for making intelligent policy decisions. This involves educating students in atmospheric and oceanic scientists but also giving students in other disciplines a chance to become better educated about cataclysmic weather and climate events.” When most people think of the weather, they think of atmospheric phenomena such as wind, rain or blizzards.

However oceans are also an essential part of weather systems. “There’s a huge interaction between oceans and atmosphere,” says Dr. Gyakum. “The equations of motion are similar, although of course the fluids are different. Ocean currents are crucial to climate change. The heat capacity of the ocean greatly exceeds that of the atmosphere so one of the key factors in seasonal anomalies is ocean temperature.”

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Hurricanes, tornadoes and ice storms are just some of the weather events studied by McGill’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences.

While AOS is a relatively small department, its introductory courses in atmospheric sciences, oceanic sciences, climate change and the science of storms attract large numbers of undergraduates. Especially popular is the MOOC (massive on-line course) on natural disasters, co-taught by Dr. Gyakum and Dr. John Stix, a volcanologist in McGill’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. The course, which attracted nearly 10,000 registrants last year, examines disasters, including hurricanes, tornadoes and ice storms, as well as volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes and avalanches.

As concerns about weather become more widespread, different career paths are opening up to AOS graduates. Until recently, most students were employed by Environment Canada. However, in the last few years, the private sector has also been recruiting graduates.

The insurance and reinsurance industries, hard-hit by natural disasters are now potential employers. Qualifications for these positions include training in computer modeling and statistics, which AOS offers. Other private sector companies, such as those in the energy sector, are emerging as potential employers as wind and solar power come of age.

Tree Damage from the Ice Storm

As climates change, extreme weather events such as ice storms may become more common.

Almost every AOS undergraduate involved with research

Students with a demonstrated ability to do research have an advantage with both employers and graduate schools. In AOS, almost every undergraduate is involved with research. “My own research group that includes M. Sc. and Ph. D. students, typically also includes undergraduates, and they make a significant contribution,” Dr. Gyakum says. “They bring an enthusiasm that really adds to our academic environment.” Thanks to the current interest in climate and the enthusiasm of faculty and students, the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science is thriving. “We are the biggest department in Canada and among the largest academic units in atmospheric and oceanic sciences on the continent,” Dr. Gyakum says. “We have fantastic students, faculty and staff. We’re part of a vibrant and intellectually exciting campus community. The Department is experiencing a spectacular renewal.”

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