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Mention statistics to most middle schoolers and, unless you're talking about odds for poker hands, the response is likely to be an eye roll. When Casey Thornbrugh was in middle school, though, his hobby was climate statistics.
"I was into statistical anomalies before I ever took a statistics class," he recalls. "How many 90-degree days can a place get? New York and LA have about the same summer, temperature-wise; why can LA get 110-degree days and New York doesn't? I was asking those questions in the eighth grade."
His family didn't share his interest, but they supported him anyway. Since they didn't have Internet access, they bought him world almanacs to help him make his own climate maps.
Thornbrugh's tribal heritage (Mashpee Wampanoag) is from the northeastern woodlands and he was born in Massachusetts, but his family moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, when he was nine. As a result, "My climate record is all in the Southwest," he explains.
As he grew older and began to think of a career, his family pointed him toward science, even though nobody knew where his unusual hobby might lead him. "People would say, 'Oh, you're going to be the first Wampanoag on the Weather Channel,' but I was more interested in climate than [regional weather] forecasting."
‘I wanted to work on something I could see with my own eyes.’
Thornbrugh entered the University of New Mexico as a geography major. There he encountered professor David Gutzler in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.
Things didn't go smoothly at first, Gutzler recalls. "In the first half of the first course he took from me," Gutzler says, "he was not one of the outstanding students; in fact, he seemed to be struggling a bit. But by the end of the class he got the highest grade. He didn't come into the class with a huge amount of background, but he sure had the motivation."
Thornbrugh stood out in another way, Gutzler recalls. "I always issue a blanket invitation to the students that if they're interested in the subject matter, they should come talk to me about doing research. He jumped on that. To be honest, I don't expect a large number of students to be leaping out of their seats to come work for free, but it's always exciting when someone does. And there's no better way to learn how to actually do science."
Gutzler put Thornbrugh to work studying the correlation between winter precipitation in New Mexico, the phase of El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO), and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). "I had a PC in the outer part of my office, and Casey would put on his headphones and bang away for hours at a time," he remembers, applying various compositing techniques to the data. They found that the PDO regime shift in the late 1970s changed the ENSO-related winter precipitation patterns in the Southwest. The work resulted in a published paper and a poster session at the American Meteorological Society's 2002 annual meeting.
"In essence, Dr. Gutzler gave me a graduate experience before I was a grad student," Thornbrugh says.
Thornbrugh's journey toward a career in research took a giant step forward in 2001, when he was accepted into UCAR's SOARS program (Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science).
His first assignment was to assess the climatological airmass patterns and human health statistics associated with heat waves in Chicago and Philadelphia. "I really enjoyed the work, but I wanted to work on something I could see with my own eyes, and that would be in the Southwest," Thornbrugh says.
‘You can go online and look at the climate records, but I really need to hear it from the elders.’
His mentor at UCAR, Robert Harriss, had met scientist Margaret Hiza Redsteer (U.S. Geological Survey) at a workshop on Native American decision making on climate change; Harriss contacted her and asked if she would like an intern. "I wasn't about to turn down an opportunity like that," she says. She had Thornburgh analyze the data from the weather station on the Moenkopi Plateau. "He was very organized; he started writing right away, and by the time the summer was over he had put together a pretty good first draft of a paper. He's incredibly motivated, and his energy is infectious."
Thornbrugh enjoyed the challenge of applying climate data to a new field. "I didn't have a background in geology or geomorphology, so I had to hold on tight."
As he begins his Ph.D. work, Thornbrugh hasn't forgotten what it was like to be the only kid who cared about climate. "My hope is that I can continue to do research, but that I can also continue to work with communities, with students. I know that the climate is changing, and I would like to be a part of education and planning that's going to need to be done."
Last summer, fellow University of Arizona grad students Rachel Novak (Navajo) and Andrew Knowler recruited him to join them in a climate change enrichment project for students at Monument Valley High School. They borrowed Hiza Redsteer's specialized tape measure to teach the students how to calculate the percentage of vegetation on nearby dunes.
For Thornbrugh, a highlight of the summer came when they took the young people to remote settlements to talk with older Navajos about climate. "You can go online and look at the climate records, but I really need to hear it from the elders."