Faculty Spotlight: Yutian Wu, Climate Modeler and Atmospheric Scientist
For the untrained eye, understanding climate patterns can be a daunting task. Building these models requires a trained professional. Yutian Wu, associate researcher at the Columbia Climate School Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, has spent nearly 15 years studying atmospheric science and building climate models. She began her studies in physics, then sought to apply her mathematical training to more practical subjects. More recently, Wu’s research aims to understand how Arctic sea ice will impact extreme weather patterns in North America as well as how monsoons affect the transport of pollutants from the Earth’s surface to the stratosphere.
Wu currently teaches “Climate Science for Policy Makers: Modeling, Analysis and Applications” at the MS in Sustainability Science program, offered by the School of Professional Studies in partnership with the School of Climate.
How and when did you first become interested in atmospheric science and climate change?
My journey with atmospheric science and climate change began in my freshman year of graduate school. I studied physics – specifically condensed matter physics – in my undergrad. In graduate studies, I wanted to explore areas more related to my daily life, while pursuing my passion for physics and mathematics. The study of atmospheric sciences gave me the opportunity to do so.
Your bio mentions that you are passionate about the intersection of education and research, with a long-term goal of improving math and data analysis skills in both K-12 and undergraduate education. Where does your interest in the intertwining of these two fields come from?
In my own research on atmospheric science and climate change, quantitative skills such as math, physics, and data analysis play a vital role. And I think horizons can be greatly expanded with quantitative skills. Therefore, I would like to deliver the same message in both K-12 and undergraduate education. To do this, I provided research opportunities for undergraduate students to work with real atmospheric data and solve research problems. I have also worked with middle school and high school teachers on research projects related to atmospheric rivers and arctic sea ice. This has provided an excellent opportunity for teachers to not only study cutting-edge science, but also to enhance their curriculum by including real data and phenomena-based learning in classroom instruction.
In 2017, the National Science Foundation awarded your project, “Monsoon and the Upper Troposphere Lower Stratosphere,” the prestigious CAREER Fellowship, which provided five years of funding. Could you tell us a bit more about the objectives of your project?
Most people are probably aware that monsoons play an important role in bringing rain to populated areas, including Asia and North America. But what the general public is less aware of is that monsoons also transport chemical species such as pollutants and aerosols to the stratosphere, affecting the climate and chemistry of the stratosphere – for example, the formation of ozone stratospheric. Thus, the goal of my NSF CAREER project is to study how monsoons affect transport from the surface to the stratosphere using both observations and climate model experiments.
Now, as we enter 2023, how has the project fared? What challenges have you faced? What are you most proud of?
We have made a lot of progress on the project. And now we better understand how and why monsoons are effective at transporting pollutants to the stratosphere. Some of the challenges are, for example, how to design the numerical model experiments to test the hypotheses, how to correctly interpret the model results, and how to use the model results to help understand the observations. I am very proud that the members of my group have all worked smart together, overcome challenges and produced new and interesting results. I am now really looking forward to continuing the research projects, especially testing some of the hypotheses from recent field campaigns.
Why should students take your course? What will the students get out of it?
Climate models are a primary and important tool for predicting global and regional climate variability and change, for assessing climate-related risks, and for guiding adaptation to climate variability and change. Our course provides a basic understanding of the fundamentals of climate models and their applications. For example, we’ll talk about how Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) models are built, how future climate projections are made, how confident we are about future projections, what uncertainties, how information from future climate projections is brought together for decision-making and sustainability management. Throughout the course, students will have the opportunity to analyze future climate projections, assess climate-related risks, and make their own assessments and decisions.
Frédérique Fyhr is an intern at MS in Sustainability Management program at Columbia University.