Chris Funk is a research geographer with the United States Geological Survey (USGS), specializing in climatology. He and his team use information from satellite imagery and monitoring stations throughout Africa and Central America to predict droughts, crop failure, and where people will be in need of food aid. Chris also holds an appointment as a research geographer at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Chris conducts most of his work as a geographer and climatologist from the sunny campus in Santa Barbara. From his office overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Funk uses satellite imagery and geographic information system (GIS) to study ocean temperatures thousands of miles away, in the Pacific and Indian oceans. Studying ocean temperatures is one step in developing models that can help to predict rainfall patterns in East Africa.
Chris is in constant communication with his colleagues in Africa and Central America, trying to predict where the next drought or flood might be.
“We employ five scientists in Africa and Central America. It’s a two-way flow,” Funk says. “They are developing science products and software tools that we use. They can train people in the region. It’s an exchange that is trying to build scientific capacity in these developing nations. The Internet has really helped collaboration.”
Evaluating the impacts of climate change is an important part of Chris’ work. “How are long-term trends in temperature and rainfall affecting trends in farming practices and land use? East Africa is becoming drier and hotter due to a warming ocean,” he says.
This climate change in East Africa is a trend to watch, as it can have profound effects on the people farming in that region, and the many more who depend on those farmers for food.
After graduating from the University of Chicago, Chris worked in Chicago, Illinois, doing stock market modeling. At that point, an old mentor who was at the University of California at Santa Barbara told him, “I’m standing in the sunshine studying geography; it’s awesome!”
Soon after, Chris moved to Santa Barbara to work with climate modeling software, “I was intrigued at using the same [modeling] techniques in this new way that could actually help people.”
Most Exciting Part of Your Work
Chris identifies three aspects of climate modeling that are the most rewarding. “One is doing a good job of developing better models that help with early warning (of droughts and crop failures). We help identify people in harm’s way. Second, I really enjoy discovering more and more about how the climate really works. The third thing is the pleasure you get from mentoring people in the United States and abroad, and being part of the academic world of learning.”
Most Demanding Part of Your Work
“Trying to have your finger in all these different worlds. You have to satisfy the demands of the science community and the applied early warning community. It’s been a challenge, but it is worth it.”
How Do You Define Geography?
“I think I define [geography] as describing how things happen and interact in space and time. To me, what’s unique about geography is not just thinking about things in terms of their physical processes but also human and societal as well. To me, the jobs that are the most interesting have both pieces. It’s not just things that happen in a place, but things that happen on this Earth, in this society, at this time. Studying geography gives you the unique ability to understand our world in the 21st century.”
“We are huge users of some of the newest satellite technology. We’re always trying to find out new information about people and places. We use high-resolution imagery from the IKONOS and QuickBird satellites to estimate crop area and crop production. We use NASA MODIS satellite imagery to determine land surface temperature.”
So, You Want to be a ... Research Geographer and Climate Modeler
Chris stresses the importance of statistics and mathematics in studying geography, and specifically for understanding and researching the climate. “At the undergraduate level, (it is important to develop) a good foundation in math, physics, and statistics and also the ability to write and communicate effectively. The challenge is understanding how the formulas work and understanding what that means in the real world.”
“Read the newspaper, and pay attention to what’s going on outside of the United States,” Funk says. He also recommends spending time on the NASA website and checking out imagery of Earth from space.