Our People - Mari Tye

Building resilience to extreme weather

Today, the project scientist in NCAR's Mesoscale and Microscale Meteorology Laboratory (MMM) is one of the coordinators of the Engineering for Climate Extremes Partnership (ECEP), which aims to bolster weather and climate resilience.

After eight years as a civil engineer in the private sector, Tye earned a Ph.D. in statistical climatology from Newcastle University in England. She joined MMM's regional climate research group in 2012, where she focuses on developing statistical tools to assess high impact weather and climate events.

Mari Tye at Lake District with husband, Aaron
Mari Tye and her husband, Aaron, at the Lake District in England. (Photo courtesy Mari Tye.)

Working toward that goal, NCAR scientist Debasish PaiMazumder and Tye are developing an application, or "app," designed to help industries in Los Angeles and Chicago estimate weather-related construction delays.

"For example, temperatures might be too low for concrete to cure, or it might be too hot and humid for other work," Tye says. "A construction manager might decide to schedule work differently, while insurers might decide to adjust rates depending on the weather risks." Contingent on funding, the app, based on existing weather data, is expected to be available for free later this year. Plans are to broaden the app to additional economic sectors.

Tye grew up in Wales, so she naturally still uses British terms such as "trolley" for shopping cart and "mad" for crazy.

What inspires you?
I'm a civil engineer. Having a problem to solve is a big thing, particularly solving a problem that helps people in some way. After I received my first degree, I wanted to do some voluntary service overseas. I spent three weeks in Uganda helping to develop low-cost solutions to improve water supply and sanitation facilities.

How did you land at NCAR?
I worked as a consulting civil engineer until 2008, when the building industry really took a hit. I was in Bristol in southwest England. I had a choice of being a regional flood defense manager for all of southwest England and Wales, or doing a Ph.D. in climate extremes and precipitation. I went for the PhD., which my boss thought was a mad choice. But it was great; there were so many opportunities. In my final year at Newcastle University, I worked for three months on the Scottish government's climate change adaptation team. I then was accepted into NCAR's Advanced Study Program for the summer. I liked NCAR scientists, they liked me, and six months later, I got this job in the regional climate division. I also met my husband, Aaron, in Boulder during the ASP program. He's a jeweler. He's a very talented guy who keeps me down-to-earth.

Mari Tye working on her grandfather's farm as a child.
A younger Mari Tye sweeping the muck on her grandparents' dairy farm in Wales. (Photo courtesy Mari Tye.)

How did ECEP come about?
I had been here around six months when I went into (NCAR senior scientist) Greg Holland's office one day. I told him we were talking to risk managers and insurance companies about extreme weather, but not the people on the ground who have to make decisions, such as engineers and city planners. He said, "OK, do something about that." So we organized a workshop. Ironically, we experienced the flood in Boulder (in September 2013) about a month after the first workshop.

Why is ECEP important?
We're increasingly exposed to extreme weather and we're becoming more vulnerable. We can't continue to do what we've always done - build flood levees higher and higher. We have to do something else, but we have to work as a group, understand what each has to offer, and forge a new path that builds resilience and maintains a healthy economy. We need to be looking at the right part of science to solve the problem. You also have to manage public expectations. For example, people don't want to give up their nice house by the river, but living too close to a river increases one's exposure to flood damage.

What's the coolest thing about your job?
When I get one of those aha moments, or see someone else get one. I've seen the concept of "graceful failure" really create those moments. The concept assumes that you'll never be able to keep out all the floods. But you can work on protecting what is critical and manage the other systems, getting them back up after they fail, with a minimal loss of life and impact on the environment. We're really working this concept into ECEP and the decision-making process. We don't know what climate change might bring. But we can do this differently, we can live differently – for example, designing more green areas in our cities that can absorb flood water. This to me seems like the epitome of resilience.

What do you consider your most significant achievement to date?
Really the success of ECEP. It reflects the whole piece of coming up with solutions to benefit society.

What do most people not know about you?
When I was 18 years old, before going to university, I worked for Bechtel Water Technology in its sewerage network design team in Manchester, England. I was the only person at the company short enough to walk through the sewers without bending my head.

Mari Tye with President Obama in Boulder
Mari Tye and her husband, Aaron, during a chance meeting with President Obama at The Buff restaurant while Obama was campaigning in 2012. (Photo courtesy Mari Tye.)

What was that like?
You lose your sense of smell quite quickly. It's also astonishing what people think they can throw down the drain. Shopping trolleys, stolen goods, syringes. At the time, most of the sewers went straight out to sea, so crabs washed back into the sewers. At first, I went in the sewers once a month, then once a week to monitor the progress of the improvements in the sewage line. I would examine the structural integrity of the brickwork (dating back to the 1800s). They were works of art.

You're from Wales. How does Wales compare to here?
When Boulder is green, it is like Wales on steroids. I came to Boulder for the summers, not the winters and the snow. They misled me about the winters (laughs).

What do you like to do when you're not working?
I play violin, mostly classical music, in the Flatirons Community Orchestra. I've played the violin since I was 6 or 7 years old.

How did you wind up in engineering and science, then?
I was terrible in math early on, and I would probably have gotten a degree in music. But my dad was a civil engineer. Dad used to take me to construction sites at a very early age – when I was 7 or 8 years old – to help as a "chain lad," holding the surveying staff.  When I was 15 years old, he got me a job in the highway drawing office. I went to the sites more, and occasionally did bridge inspections. I loved it. I later found out that I was good at math and I just had had a bad teacher.

Jeff Smith, Science Writer and Public Information Officer