Growing up in Staten Island, N.Y., Heidi Cullen was fascinated by science and maps and was a huge fan of Jacques Cousteau. “I watched his show religiously. I wanted to be a marine biologist,” Dr. Cullen said.
Instead she went to engineering school, certain it would lead to a steady job. “I didn’t love engineering school at all. It was just a painful process,” she said.
However, that experience helped to shape her career. “I studied operational research, which is very statistically oriented. That applies very well to Wall Street, where I worked as a quantitative analyst for a while, but it also applies brilliantly to climate, which is also about statistics.”
Feeling as if she were missing out on something, Dr. Cullen decided in grad school to specialize in paleoceanography, which is the study of ancient climates in relation to ocean atmosphere dynamics. “My adviser was one of the guys who first discovered and successfully modeled El Nino, so our group was really fascinated with trying to understand how the ocean influenced the atmosphere.”
Given her engineering background and her advanced studies in climatology, it’s no wonder Dr. Cullen considers herself an “infrastructure junkie,” since infrastructure affects how weather affects the environment, both negatively and positively. “For me it’s a fascination with human nature,” she said. “We can rationally understand something. We knew that inevitably New Orleans was going to get hit [by a massive hurricane], but you couldn’t say when. So by virtue of not knowing when, we didn’t do anything to help the infrastructure.”
Hurricane Katrina, she said, was a prime example of our vulnerability. “How do we really teach ourselves to learn from mistakes the right way? Even this summer, between the heat and the flooding events — forget about hurricanes for a second — it’s somewhat ominous,” she said. “I can’t help but watch these events take place and wonder: How do we eventually overcome our vulnerabilities?”
Dr. Cullen is amazed at the changes the planet has gone through in its estimated 4.6 billion years. “Mountain ranges forming, ice sheets moving in and out over time, volcanoes — the climate has changed dramatically,” she said.
Natural climate variability alone did most of those things, which makes her wonder what impact the world’s 6.5 billion people have on those natural variables. So when she started doing brief interstitial spots on the Weather Channel in 2003, she wanted to give practical information and the scientific basics behind it.
“I had no TV experience when I started here. I was learning how to tell a story on a certain level, but started out focusing on pure scientific issues,” she said. “Everyone teased me. They used to sing ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ when I walked into the room. They’d say, ‘Heidi, make it more relevant to the viewer.'” That wasn’t easy at first, since the general public considered global warming to be a future issue.
Dr. Cullen said the success of films such as “The Day After Tomorrow” and “An Inconvenient Truth,” as well as books about climate change, combined with the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, helped generate new interest in global warming. That increased interest led to the Weather Channel greenlighting “Forecast Earth,” a weekly half-hour series.
Given the Weather Channel’s broad audience, reaction to the show has run the gamut, including skepticism from viewers who think global warming isn’t real. “We hear from those viewers as well as people who say, ‘Tell me what I can do. I want to hear about solutions.’ I feel like over time we’ve started a dialogue,” Dr. Cullen said.
“If anything, I think there’s a greater interest now in focusing less on the basic science and more on trying to get to the solution,” she said. “We’re seeing an explosion of interest. Some of it is negative, but increasingly it’s, ‘Just tell me what I can do to fix it.'”
She’s optimistic we’re moving in the right direction. “You go to Silicon Valley these days and talk to the guys doing these clean-technology venture startups, and you can see what they’re thinking. They’re ahead of the curve and envisioning the future.”
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