Why Atmospheric Science Matters
I’m Allison Wing. I’m a postdoctoral research fellow here at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, in the division of Ocean and Climate Physics. I’m an atmospheric scientist, which means I study weather and climate. I’ve been here at Columbia for almost two years as a postdoc.
Most of the research that I do … is on tropical convection and tropical cyclones. So, that’s clouds and cloud systems in the tropics—how they organize, how they clump together into clusters, why they do, what impact that has on the larger-scale climate, how that might affect and respond to climate change—and tropical cyclones, which are known as hurricanes in the Atlantic or typhoons in the Pacific, but ‘tropical cyclones’ is the general name.
Hurricanes are really fascinating from a scientific perspective, in terms of how they form and how they move and what causes their intensity. But they’re also incredibly important from a societal standpoint. They have the potential to cause a great deal of devastation and destruction, and there’s still a great deal that we don’t know or don’t understand about them. And we’d always like to be able to understand them better, so that we can forecast them better and people can prepare better.
I’ve done research on a couple different aspects of hurricanes, including trends in variability in hurricane intensity.
One of the things that we expect as the climate is warming is that hurricanes can become more intense, and there is a pretty strong theoretical basis, based on physics and theory that have been developed over the years for hurricane intensity. So we have a pretty good footing for expecting at least the most intense storms to get more intense—to have the ones that have the strongest winds to have even stronger winds than they do now.
Recently, our research group here—led by Adam Sobel and Suzana Camargo and a couple other scientists—worked on a project reviewing the state of our knowledge on hurricane intensity, and human influence on it specifically, to better characterize how it had increased, whether that is in line with what we expect or not, and then what we expect to happen in the future.
Unfortunately for society, it does seem like a fairly confident projection that hurricanes will get stronger in the future. There is less evidence that they have gotten stronger thus far because of complicated factors, some which oppose that increase and some which favor it in the current climate, as well as limitations from our observational record. We simply don’t have that many years of reliable data. But all of that is consistent with our expectations, and as the climate becomes even warmer we expect that … the increase in intensity will get larger, and it will be unfortunately even easier to see that the hurricanes are going to get more intense.
Other aspects of hurricane activity, with regards to climate and our fundamental understanding of how they work, are less clear. In particular, we don’t have a theory for what controls the number of hurricanes in a given climate. And that’s one of the really big unanswered questions in tropical meteorology. So a lot of my research is focused on that problem of hurricane formation.
Watch an interview with Allison Wing below.