Asia’s Scientific Trailblazers: Gabriel Lau

For fifty years, Professor Gabriel Lau has dedicated himself to understanding the forces behind climate change—a field that grows more advanced and more urgent each day.

Gabriel Lau
Emeritus Professor
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Hong Kong SAR

AsianScientist (Jan. 21, 2022) – With increasing intensity of heat, forest fires, storms, rainfall, droughts and their negative impact on health, food and livelihoods, the threat of global warming has been hitting home hard. Still, we don’t fully understand these phenomena and their interactions with each other. That has made climate science one of the most exciting and urgent fields of study of our time.

But about five decades ago, when Professor Gabriel Lau was an undergraduate student pursuing a physics degree at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the attitudes surrounding climate science were much less pressing and almost purely academic. Lau, who is currently a Senior Scholar in atmospheric and oceanic sciences at Princeton University in the United States, has come a long way since then.

Throughout his career studying weather patterns and developing climate model predictions, Lau has been in the thick of shifting perspectives about climate change through his collaborations with the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and research at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Princeton University.

In this interview with Asian Scientist Magazine, Lau shares how the field of climate science has evolved as well as his insights into the future of the field.

  1. What sparked your interest in atmospheric and climate sciences?
  2. As a primary school student, I took a subject called ‘nature.’ I found the description of natural phenomena extremely fascinating. Then, as an active member of the geography club in secondary school, I would collect weather maps from the local observatory. I would get very excited when there was a rainstorm and try to compare what I saw on the maps with what was happening outside the window.

    Years later, I pursued an undergraduate degree in physics but it was very abstract to me. So, I returned to my interest in natural phenomena and attended lessons in climate studies and climate change. In the early 1970s, when researchers began turning their attention to the climate and greenhouse warming, I remember borrowing books and reports written by these farsighted leaders and reading them very thoroughly.

    Finally, as a graduate student, I decided to pursue my passion—atmospheric science.

  3. How have advancing technologies in climate science contributed to your research and the field as a while?
  4. Climate science has certainly gone through a period of very rapid growth and that can be traced back to several factors. The first is the availability of a lot of observations. We collect several kinds of data over time from the atmosphere, temperature, wind pressure and other sources in a three-dimensional fashion. These data are then organized in a way that is easy to access and study.

    Next is the development of computer models that simulate the atmosphere. You can make experiments using the models or you can test a hypothesis with a model.

    A third factor is the advancement of computing. You need large computers with large memory to be able to run models and to process a lot of observational data. The availability of rapidly growing computer power in all parts of the world has certainly aided in atmospheric science research.

    Finally, a fourth factor which is not very obvious to most people, is the ability to visualize data using very sophisticated graphics. To be able to understand phenomena and to analyze the interactions between different components of the same phenomenon, you need a really good picture.

  5. How can climate scientists effectively communicate the urgency of climate change to decision makers and the public?
  6. We can relate some of the phenomena happening in the real world to what we predict using models. For example, there were several destructive storms in the United States in December last year—which is very unusual for that time of the year. Even though we cannot trace individual tornadoes to global warming, we can certainly make the assertion that global warming has provided the environment that is conducive to the disruptive storms.

    When we communicate with policymakers, we talk about the possible consequences of extreme weather events to emphasize that climate change is no longer an academic study but has implications for the lives and livelihoods of people.

    When it comes to communicating to the public, I think education is very important. We should be educating in many ways, either through the schools or through public lectures and conversations. Hopefully, somebody will learn something from this and realize that global warming is a very urgent issue that affects our daily lives.

  7. How do you see climate research transforming over the next decade?
  8. I think with increasing computer power, we should be able to better understand natural phenomena at the spatial scales. For example, we will be able to see different parts of a storm and the structure of the storm more clearly.

    We are also working towards making predictions about climate change more specific to a geographical region. For example, we will be able to differentiate climate change in Singapore from climate change observed in Hong Kong.

    Additionally, we are also developing methods to compare different models. This would give us an idea of the range of uncertainty that we can expect from different models. The more the models agree with each other, the more confidence we have in them.

  9. Do you have any advice for aspiring climate researchers in Asia and abroad?
  10. Climate science is one of the most fascinating topics to study these days and I encourage young people, especially those in Asia, to actually get into the field. This is as exciting a field as anything that I have seen. I think this is worth people’s investment of energy and talents.

    I never expected to see a Nobel Prize awarded for climate studies in my lifetime, but one was awarded in 2021 and I think that should inspire many students.

    In the 1960s, I chose to pursue physics because the first time a Chinese person was awarded a Nobel Prize, it was for physics. Like me, I hope a lot of young people will be inspired by the recent Nobel Prize and choose to study climate science.

This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Scientific Trailblazers. Click here to read other articles in the series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Illustration: Oikeat Lam/Asian Scientist Magazine.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Jill Arul graduated with a degree in Communication Studies from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, with a keen interest for science and a passion for storytelling.

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