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Robert Lund: Faculty

Department: 
Professor and Department Chair, Statistics
Undergraduate Institution: 
Auburn University
Graduate Institution: 
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Robert Lund

Professor Lund spoke to us from a tiny cabin in Lake Tahoe, where he’d traveled to observe an extreme weather event: a blizzard that was dumping several feet of snow in the area. As we spoke, he occasionally updated us on the quantity of snow. He planned to head back to Santa Cruz at first light the following day but it was looking increasingly unlikely as the snow piled up. 

What do you study?

The laws of probability. I’ll tell you how to gamble, if you must know. But aside from gambling, statistics and probability come up in a lot of things. Like the weather. I do a lot of my research on extreme events. These could be hurricanes. I do a lot of hurricane modeling. I used to chase hurricanes. One of my first co-op jobs was at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Waterways Experiment Station (WES) where we used to go around the Gulf of Mexico and put wave gauges down to collect data from where the hurricanes were coming up on shore.

I have a love for extreme things. I’m interested in how cold it can get how much snow or rain you can get. Statisticians call these extreme values. There are certain things like earthquakes that occur throughout history at 20 or 50 year intervals. One might attach about a one-in-a-hundred years label to this pandemic we’re seeing.

So a lot of what I do is trying to use the laws of probability and statistics and trying to apply them rigorously to climate controversies and see what we can definitively say. One example: we’ve been getting a lot of storms in the North Atlantic. Now a hurricane basically moves heat from the equator to the poles, it’s almost like the earth’s way of sweating, trying to keep the planet at a constant temperature. When we have a warming world we’d expect we’d have more heat to dissipate, and that we’d get more tropical storms and hurricanes might be stronger. 

What I do as a statistician is crunch the numbers. We take data, compare it to what a climatologist’s model predicts, and give them our conclusions and how sure we are of those conclusions.

What are you doing up in Tahoe?

When I heard it was going to snow very heavily, I drove on up. The Sierra Nevada is famous for these kinds of events. I’d say this kind of event happens about once a year. So this isn’t anything too extreme. 

Looking out the window right now I have no idea how I’m going to get back. I do have chains for my truck but I’m not sure how I’m getting out of here. Looks like two feet total, it’s certainly knee high, in some places it’s almost waist high. 

So what are you up to in Santa Cruz?

This is not widely distributed or known, but we are trying to construct something called the California Climate Center, which would take advantage of California’s wonderful environmental resources. People who live out here are often at the mercy of the environment: we had the wildfires in the summer, we get droughts, we get floods, all these things... so it’s an important task. Under the last administration there were cuts to many climate programs. One of the things that happened was that the statistics group at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, CO was shut down. 

I have an inkling to build this back right here in California and serve the population of this state with things like wildfire forecast, Sierra snowpack forecasts, be official record keepers of our temperatures. Perhaps a more climate-oriented version of Berkeley Earth. I think we’re in a great place to do this. The local population are enthusiastic stewards of the environment, and we’re particularly impacted by these events, so I think a center like this would have good success out here. Who better to do it than the statisticians?

What about the school itself? 

I got here for two months and COVID struck and we were sent home. Those months were crazy. Then the wildfires hit. I would say it’s been the most interesting year of my life. Santa Cruz is interesting. I live on campus and I’ll walk around town to the ocean. There are so many microclimates, you can see all the different climate zones, redwood trees, scrub oaks… it’s just so interesting. Back east of the Mississippi River is much more homogenous. So I’ve liked that part. When the pandemic first struck it was a little overwhelming. We lost two instructors and there were only eight or nine of us, so it had a big impact. All of sudden we had a thousand students who needed classes. But we got through it!

I really enjoy the culture here. I love the energy. 

What’s your background?

I would probably be called an educated redneck, I grew up in Alabama. In my teen years I did an undergraduate degree in mathematics at Auburn University, then I went on to UNC-Chapel Hill for a Ph.D. in statistics. That was in 1993. I took a faculty position at the University of Georgia for about eleven years, then I was at Clemson for 17 and have been here at UCSC for one full year.

I hear you’re into heavy metal (and other heavy things).

I am! I am a heavy metal drummer. Sometimes people think that’s cool. I’m also an avid rock collector. Rocks, minerals, and fossils. My best piece: I have a cathedral geode that is about five feet high, and I have a two-ton piece of petrified wood that came from Sumatra that was pure hell moving here from Clemson! But I have all sorts of stuff, from trilobites to megalodon shark teeth to fools gold configuration. I don’t have any meteorites though.

What’s the biggest severe weather event you’ve ever witnessed?

The Blizzard of 1993. March 8, 1993 it snowed on the East Coast. We attached about a 400-year return period to that event. I wound up on the pass of North Carolina-Tennessee on the I-40, and I ended up stuck on the highway for about a day and a half as it was coming down. They had about 40 inches of snow in that event.

If you get 40” of snow in South Lake Tahoe, they actually know how to deal with it pretty well. Forty inches of snow in North Carolina or Tennessee they have no idea. That was a historic blizzard, there was nothing in the record books like that. I for sure got stuck in it! I had just finished my Ph.D. I had just driven from Chapel Hill to the state of Colorado for a ski trip to celebrate and I caught in it as I was driving back.

I used to do plenty of ice climbing and could tell you stories about grizzly bears and getting stuck on ice-faces, but those are not really weather events.