The hurricanes she experienced as a child led to a career in hurricane risk

To clarify upfront: Both hurricanes and tornadoes are types of tropical cyclones; Hurricanes is the term used to describe hurricanes in most parts of the Pacific Ocean, while cyclones are the term used to describe hurricanes that affect the North Atlantic Ocean, including the East Coast of the United States.

All of these types of storms are of deep interest to Chia-Ying Li, an assistant research professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who first became interested in tornadoes while growing up in Taiwan.

“I think in general, everyone in Taiwan is somewhat interested in storms and typhoons because they are a common thing every summer,” Lee said in a recent interview.

In college, Lee took a class in atmospheric dynamics, which sparked her interest in the scientific side of storms. She has been studying extreme weather events ever since.

In August this year, Lee co-authored a paper showing a counterintuitive finding about sea surface temperature patterns in the Pacific Ocean: While climate models predict that tropical Pacific waters will warm on average due to climate change, the opposite appears to be the case in Reality is happening. Waters in the tropical Pacific Ocean experience below average temperatures. Columbia News I sat down with Lee to discuss the paper’s findings, and what they mean for weather patterns around the world and in New York City.

Can you describe the results of this new paper?

Every two years, the Pacific Ocean experiences the El Niño Southern Oscillation, also known as El Niño or ENSO, which is a rise in sea surface temperature near the equator in the eastern Pacific Ocean. The tropical Pacific Ocean is becoming warmer than usual. In other years, we get La Niña, where the temperature in this region is colder than normal. Temperatures in this region affect the weather not only in the Pacific region, but globally.

As the climate warms due to increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, global climate models suggest that the tropical Pacific on average is moving more toward an El Niño-like pattern — warmer overall temperatures, more often.

But our observations show the opposite: we are seeing cooling in the Pacific Ocean. It looks like a La Niña pattern, which indicates that the pattern is wrong.

The temperature of the Pacific Ocean has global impacts, and in La Niña years, there also tends to be increased hurricane activity in the Atlantic Ocean as well. So our finding is that if models are underestimating cooling and La Niña activity, they may actually be underestimating the amount of hurricane activity that we will experience in the future.

We’re in New York, very far from the area you’re looking at. Why are the findings in this paper important here?

El Niño affects weather around the world. One of our preliminary findings is that we are likely to expect more and more intense hurricanes on the East Coast than our current models predict, due to a cooling of the Pacific Ocean – and I know it is surprising to see temperature impacts in one region of the Pacific all the way in Atlantic Ocean.

There will be other effects as well; Many weather patterns are affected by El Niño patterns. Areas of North America may experience other weather changes, such as drought or a change in the number of hurricanes they experience.

How does this paper fit into your overall research?

I’m interested in the timing, duration, and intensity of hurricanes both next season and in the distant future, and how that relates to a changing climate.

Since arriving in Colombia, I have been working on tropical cyclone risk assessments, estimating the probability of hurricanes making landfall of a given intensity. The tool I developed with my colleagues here is called the Statistical Dynamic Downscaling Model. The model combines information from global climate models and historical storms and then generates artificial storms — models of how a future storm is expected to occur. We then use that to estimate storm risks in different places around the world.

We have private funders for this work, as the insurance and reinsurance industries are very interested in hurricane risk modeling. Clearly, we are very concerned with the accuracy of current global climate models, because if these models are wrong, then our risk projections are also wrong.

You’ve mentioned that your childhood in Taiwan is what got you interested in storms. Do you find that people you know from home have noticed climate change – the frequency or intensity of storms?

There are a few typhoons impact Taiwan each year. And because it’s so common, at least in Taipei, where I’m from, the flexibility is very good. There are mudslides and there have been disasters in the interior areas in particular. But where I am the infrastructure is ready for them. I have one memory of a hurricane that flooded the subway, but then they built a protective door to prevent that from happening again.

You joined Columbia University in 2013 as a postdoctoral researcher before becoming a professor. What are your favorite things to do in New York when you’re not working?

It changes with time. The first few years I was here, I was very interested in SummerStage, the free concerts in Central Park, and outdoor movies, like the ones at Lincoln Center. I also really love playing volleyball. I’m still interested in those things, but nowadays I think I’m doing more things near the Tarrytown area, which is near our campus in Lamont. I love visiting Rockefeller State Park.

What do you hope your research will achieve?

This is something that also changes over time. In the past, I wanted to learn more about hurricane dynamics, to improve the science of hurricane physics. Now I still want that, but I also want these models to be better so that we can turn scientific knowledge into something that stakeholders can use to improve our resilience to hurricanes.

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