Researcher Profile: Benjamin Cook

Meet Dr. Benjamin Cook, an Adjunct Associate Research Scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Over the past decade, the interactions between land surface changes and climate changes, particularly on a regional level, have gained recognition as being important to understanding the climate system.  Dr. Benjamin Cook, currently an Adjunct Associate Research Scientist with NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a former NOAA Climate and Global Change Postdoctoral Research Fellow, focuses on how land cover change can affect climate directly by altering the exchange of energy and water between the surface and the atmosphere, and indirectly by promoting phenomena such as wind erosion.

“Land cover changes, such as reduction in plant cover resulting from a drought, can result in more wind erosion, which puts more dust in the atmosphere, resulting in reductions in surface radiation, convective heating, soil evaporation, and the ability for convective storms to form and produce rainfall.  This reduction in rainfall results in more drying and more dust, and the cycle continues,” says Cook.  This phenomenon, an example of a postive feedback loop, is illustrated in one of Cook’s recent publications detailing how the ModelE climate model at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) simlated the 1930’s “Dust Bowl.”  This work was co-authored by Ron Miller, a GISS expert on modeling the radiative effects of atmospheric dust, and Richard Seager, an expert on sea surface temperature (SST) forcings at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and explains how SST anomalies alone do not explain the severity or position of the “Dust Bowl” drought.  Only through a combination of SST data and estimated atmospheric dust concentrations can the climate of the 1930’s Midwest be accurately modeled.

“Three of the key variables controlling the frequency and severity of drought are: sea surface temperature variations, including varitions in the Pacific due to the El Nino Southern Oscillation; well mixed greenhouse gases and their climate impact; and the land surface [conditions],” says Cook.  “We have seen these interactions in regions as diverse as North America during the Dust Bowl, the decades-long Sahel drought in West Africa, and even in Europe during the extreme drought of 2003.”

View a listing of Dr. Cook’s recent publications.

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