Professor Geoff Vallis

Published on: 16 May 2014

Professor Geoff Vallis

Professor Geoff Vallis is a recent recipient of a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Exeter.

The Wolfson Award is very prestigious, and is designed to help keep and recruit outstanding scientists in the UK.

What are your thoughts on winning the award and why you won it?

I am delighted and honoured. It’s an affirmation of my approach to research – which is to think with a long-term perspective and to address fundamental problems ion climate research.

And it’s confirmation that my decision to come to Exeter was the right one. Exeter is a world-class place to do climate research – so I feel that the award is really just as much a testament to the University as it is to me.

What is your research about?

I look at the large-scale circulation of the atmosphere and ocean. There’s enormous interaction between them and they’re ultimately branches of the same system.

The climate system is very complex and to understand it properly I think you have to have a mental picture of it at multiple levels of granularity, to look at it at with multiple levels of complexity simultaneously.

For example, the Met Office’s models are probably the best models in the world, but they are also extremely complex. This means that unless you are very careful you don’t see the forest for the trees, and sometimes you need a very simple model – a back of the envelope calculation if you will – to get at the essence of what is going on.

So I think you need both the simple calculation and the complex model, and a range of models in between. So I suppose that, in a nutshell, I am looking to develop a hierarchal understanding of the climate system.

What benefits do you think your research brings?

Well, on a grandiose scale is helps improve our understanding of the natural world, which is what the human adventure is all about. At a practical level I think the research helps us improve the models used by places like the Met Office, allowing us to make better forecasts of weather and climate. In fact I’m working with colleagues in Exeter on a proposal to the Natural Environment Research Council to help improve seasonal forecasts at the moment.

Who do you work with?

Being in the Maths department I work with Exeter Climate Systems and the Centre for Geophysical and Astrophysical Fluid Dynamics, whose work is closely aligned with my own. I’m also starting to work with colleagues in the Astrophysics group on planets elsewhere in the solar system and even beyond – the so-called exoplanets.

The things you find – like planets that are very close to their star and are really hot on one side and cold on the other – force you to think outside the box and be creative and imaginative in your work. Studying the atmosphere on Earth gives you a good background for looking at exoplanets, and studying exoplanets in turn can help us better understand Earth’s climate. So there’s a synergy.

You were at Princeton University before Exeter – how do you end up in the Ivy League and why did you come back?

I ended up in the US when I went to the University of California to take up a postdoctoral position. It seemed like an adventure – and the weather there was nice! From there I had the opportunity to move to Princeton.

Why come back? In one sense it was coming home, as after all I am British. But also Exeter is a great place to do research into climate and planetary atmospheres. There are lots of opportunities for collaborations and research and a great many very good scientists here – not just in my field but in many other disciplines. I have a marvellous group of colleagues in mathematics and physics of course, and although we like to think - rather immodestly - that we are a good place now, we think Exeter can be even better in the future, really one of the best places for science in the world.

Related links

» Met Office
» Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
» Princeton University
» Royal Society
» University of California

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