29 October 2021
In the university town of Boulder, Colorado, USA, where I grew up, tornadoes were rare. For most of us, our only experience of these events would have been through Hollywood films such as ‘Twister’ in which a group of ‘storm chasers’ race to research a huge tornado. But while jaw-dropping special effects may bring storms to life on the big screen, when a real tornado hits, there is nothing that quite prepares you mentally, as I found out.
On the last day of school when I was eight years old, a rare outbreak of tornadoes hit in and around Boulder. My coursework that day was outside so I saw the funnel cloud rotating above us. We were ushered inside where we were moved around the building many times – the administration was so unaccustomed to tornadoes they did not know where the safest place was for us to sit. The confusion, commotion, and fear that day was palpable, even though the worst outcome in the Boulder area was a damaged garden shed.
The entire summer holiday, I was terrified every time a dark cloud passed by, convinced a tornado was coming. To help alleviate my fear, my parents encouraged me to learn more about tornadoes. In doing so, I came to realise that weather – and particularly severe weather – is the most interesting subject in the world and wanted to spend my career learning more and helping solve some of the problems severe weather causes. I moved straight into the centre of ‘tornado alley’ to study meteorology at the University of Oklahoma, before going to study Geography at East Carolina University, then I got my PhD in Atmospheric Science (specifically on tornadoes) from the University of Manchester, in the UK.
A highlight was working on a project to give local emergency managers in North Carolina the information they needed to make informed decisions in the face of uncertain forecasts when hurricanes or winter storms approached. One outcome of my research was a new graphic that the National Hurricane Center still uses to help emergency managers plan for when hurricane shelters need to be locked down with emergency vehicles off the road – a tool that helps them plan their full hurricane response.
It has been empowering to turn my fear of severe weather into research that can help save lives and livelihoods from damaging weather. Now, in my role at Hiscox, my work helps people make informed decisions on climate issues; in my team we have looked at how global climate change affects the frequency and severity of tropical cyclones; how urban wind canyons can channel high winds in cities, increasing potential damage, to name but a few.
When I was growing up, climate change awareness was in its infancy, whereas these days children are exposed to these issues from a young age, leading some public health experts to warn of rising levels of “eco-anxiety” among children and young people.
By giving children the tools to turn their feelings into action, we empower them to become part of the solution and take charge of their own futures. My childhood fear turned into a lifelong fascination with the weather and a career path that allows me to make a difference.
For any children feeling eco-anxiety, I recommend focusing on the little things you have control over – turning off the lights when you leave the room, eating less meat and more locally-grown vegetables (maybe even from your own garden!), walking, cycling or using public transport instead of taking a car. The beach is made up of millions of grains of sand – and each grain counts. Your little actions add up and matter. And if you’re interested, I also recommend learning more about the science behind climate change. You never know – you might turn it into a fascinating and rewarding career too.
Climate Action Farm in a Box is in partnership with the Hiscox Foundation. Through their support, we have provided 1000 free Climate Action Boxesto eligible schools across the UK.