Ethan Coffel

Hometown: Iowa City

Majors: Integrated science and computer science

Big picture: Ethan Coffel has gone from tornado chasing to working with NASA to climate science in a few short years. As a teen Coffel and a friend spent summer days driving hundreds of miles around the Midwest with radar, trying to forecast where a tornado would touch down so they could witness it first. In high school he also helped develop a “synthetic vision” system for pilots, which gives a 3D view of outside terrain and helps reduce accidents, and he wrote software for a heads-up display system that can project real-time aircraft positions and orientations on a screen inside the visor of the pilot’s helmet. While at Northwestern Coffel co-founded the microgravity group and flew on NASA’s microgravity airplane. After graduation he hopes to study climate science at Columbia University to pursue his passions for weather and science in the public policy arena.

On flying in reduced gravity: “The plane goes up, and it flies in these big arcs. When its nose pitches forward at the top of the arc, it’s like the moment you jump off a high dive. You feel yourself falling, except it doesn’t stop. You start floating as the plane descends, and then it pulls up and you get two G’s, and that’s interesting and slightly unpleasant, though none of us got sick.”

On responding to climate change: “The climate change problem is about as intractable as it could be. It requires us to act in ways that people are inherently bad at. It’s a long-term problem, not really visible to the average person, and there are very entrenched and well-financed groups that do not want changes in energy policy. Not to mention the fact that even if we really wanted to make big changes to our energy infrastructure, it would be a long, difficult process. So there are a lot of ways to rationalize not doing anything now. 

“However, even with those difficulties, the scientific community could do a lot better job at getting the message out. There is definitely a culture of thinking in the scientific community that public outreach is in general somehow a waste of time, especially if it involves ‘dumbing down’ the science. However, I think this attitude is changing. 

“If we are really interested in combating climate change, then we should be willing to do whatever works to get people to respond to the problem.”

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