A Scientist's Life: Art Miller

Climate scientist Art Miller works to understand linkages between oceans and the atmosphere – and to inspire the next generation of scientists

Art Miller is a research oceanographer, senior lecturer in climate sciences, and also currently serves as head of the Oceans and Atmosphere Section of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego.

explorations now: What do you do for a living?

Art Miller: I'm one of those lucky people who gets to do science for a living. My work involves studying and understanding the physical circulation in the ocean. I’m particularly interested in how the ocean influences the atmosphere and affects climate change. I also have the opportunity to work with ecologists and biologists who study the ecosystem in the ocean and I help them understand how the physical changes in the environment can affect the populations of organisms they study.

My role at Scripps extends beyond my immediate studies as well. In addition to advising my seven PhD students, I am the head of the Oceans and Atmosphere Section. This brings responsibilities like developing hiring plans, allocating laboratory and office space, and managing funds. I’m also Chair of the Scripps Heritage Committee, which works to preserve the history of Scripps Oceanography. For example, we work on preserving the Old Scripps Building, a National Historic Landmark, to make sure it is maintained properly. Also, the Heritage Committee was recently tasked with reviewing proposed artwork that communicates the science done here and placing it prominently around the Scripps campus.

en: Describe some of your current projects.

AM: One of the biggest projects that I have right now is funded by the National Science Foundation as part of their coastal sustainability efforts. It involves several institutions including Scripps, San Diego State University and NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center. We’re interested in what the fisheries of the California Current will look like under global warming scenarios 30 to 50 years in the future. How will that affect the economic structure of the fisheries? This project also has a social science component, as we’re interested in understanding how fisherpeople will respond to possible changes in management and policy that come with changes in the fishery. 

en: What are some of the main questions in your field?

AM: One of the topics of great interest is the idea of climate predictability. We can predict weather really well on a day by day basis, but how can we expand this to predict the climate on longer timescales? We study the ocean/atmosphere system in order to predict climate in years and even decades ahead to understand the effects of climate variability and change and prepare for them.

This leads to a larger question that my students and I are addressing. What will be the effects of these changes in climate, from regional oceanography to economics to policy? A great example of this is the work on California fisheries. We’re combining research on climate change, regional oceanography, fisheries economics, social interaction and policy to describe how climate change can affect an entire system.

en: What tools do you use in your research?

AM: Most of the research in my lab is done using computer models – particularly simulations of the ocean/atmosphere system and ecological system – and also using statistical models. Specifically we run computer codes that represent the real world and then plug in disturbances that could represent a change to that system, and then analyze how it behaves. We can take these results and compare them to nature and see whether we really understand the system or not. We also use advanced statistical techniques to look for correlations and changes in the system.

The combination of numerical models and statistical models together is a really powerful way to look at the ocean/atmosphere system. In fact, some of our numerical models are so complex that we have to use statistical models to understand them. In the end, it’s a combination of observations, numerical models, statistical models, and basic theory that helps us answer our questions. 

en: Why did you come to Scripps?

AM: I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio in the Fifties and Sixties when pollution of the environment was a really big issue. The local Cuyahoga River caught on fire more than once from pollution that was dumped into it. So the damage that was being caused by industries was obvious all around us. During that time, I had a high school science teacher who sparked my interest in observing and measuring the environment through local field trips and camping expeditions. This eventually led me to pursue a PhD at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Now, nearly 40 years later I have a career in oceanography here. And every day is different, with different stories and different surprises. You never know if a famous scientist is going to walk through your door, or if you’ll meet a brand new undergraduate student who wants to work with you. Helping to expose students to a life in science at a place like Scripps is what keeps me here!

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