Profile: Charlie Koven ’94, charting climate change and ecosystems

Real-time Science - Charlie Koven ’94 charts the relationship between climate and ecosystems


As a Sixth Former, Charlie Koven ’94 took photographs of a supernova for a special project in Walter Hawley’s astronomy class. At the time, Koven says he thought about “how cool it was to track the changes in real time of this star exploding in a different galaxy.” Koven’s still charting changes in real time. As a climate scientist for the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in California, he tries to understand how ecosystems respond to climate change and how they modify the climate further. Koven builds theoretical models of ecosystems, which he can then embed back into climate models to help predict behavior.

“We might look at, if the earth warms by this many degrees, how will the tundra respond.” he says. “Take Arctic ecosystems, for example. As permafrost thaws, and soils decompose more quickly, we want to know how much extra warmth we can expect from the gases released by those soils.” Koven’s work is theoretical, but it has practical applications. The answer most people want to know, he says, is how sensitive the warming of the planet is to the continued use of fossil fuels. “People want a budget that lets us know how quickly we need to stop burning fossil fuels if we want to stay below a certain warming threshold,” Koven says. “A lot of the uncertainty in that carbon budget comes from not knowing how much of the carbon that we burn actually stays in the atmosphere, versus being taken up by the oceans or land. So, it’s important to try to better understand these processes.”

Koven says that climate scientists are in a strange place right now, seeing their predictions beginning to play out. He cites as an example the recent drought in California that began in 2012 and lasted until last year. “Climate models have predicted that extreme events are going to happen more often,” he says. “It’s not just about a lack of rainfall, but also that warmer temperatures make soils and plants dry out faster.”

For Koven, charting trends is a double-edged sword. No scientist cheers about the impact of climate change. At the same time, trying to use those changes to understand the relationship between climate and ecosystems is an interesting challenge. “We’re seeing things now that used to be exceptional – flooding or drought – are not anymore,” he says. “And this isn’t even the new normal. Things will continue to get worse. My research is to try to help lay the groundwork so that, as people more seriously address questions about climate, they have the foundation to make decisions about what to do. There are a lot of things we can do to avoid the worst outcomes – and people are doing them.”