New Tech Talks Series Explores Faculty Research

Columbia Engineering's inaugural Tech Talk offered a discussion on the mechanics of modeling extreme weather. The next installment on Nov. 29 is set to explore regenerative medicine.
—Photo courtesy of NASA

From hurricanes off the coast of Ireland to wildfires raging through Northern California, extreme weather has made some of the biggest headlines of 2017. As global warming continues to transform the climate, the ability to accurately forecast such devastating events could revolutionize infrastructure management and spell the difference between life and death for many around the world.

How Columbia engineers are rising to that challenge was the subject of the School’s inaugural Tech Talk on October 24, which featured Professor Adam Sobel, an authority on atmospheric and climate dynamics, in conversation with Professor Kyle Mandli, an expert on geophysics. Moderated by Dean Mary C. Boyce and organized in collaboration with the engineering student councils, this new series brings together faculty and students for informal, open-ended discussions in Carleton Commons. Through topics that span the five pillars of Engineering for Humanity—the next installment on Nov. 29 is set to explore a healthy humanity through regenerative medicine—students can learn first-hand about the pioneering research underway inside faculty labs.

“These Faculty Tech Talks provide an ideal forum for students to connect with faculty in an intimate setting, where they have the opportunity to ask questions about the current state of the art research as well as hear about the career trajectories of different faculty—what inspired them and what path led them to their research and education field and their interest in an academic career,” said Dean Boyce. “It is always interesting to hear about the journey as well as the work.”

Plans are currently to host at least three more Tech Talks over the course of the academic year. This first event offered an engaging discussion on the mechanics of modeling extreme weather. The climate is a chaotic system composed of chaotic systems, and devising the technology and methodologies needed to make sense of its convulsions is no mean feat. Take the questions swirling around whether we can make a direct link between the climate change caused by humans and specific events, such hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Trying to answer that is “like trying to hear someone talking quietly in a loud room,” Sobel said.

That’s largely because, even though humans have gotten pretty good at predicting weather over days and weeks, the ability to account for all the variables involved in anticipating complex phenomena like tornadoes and hurricanes over months and years simply doesn’t exist yet.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty and we really don’t know what’s going on,” said Mandli, who studies and models flood events like storm surges and tsunami. The climate is definitely changing, but “[w]e don’t really understand how fast ice will melt in the Arctic and Greenland, or exactly how the ocean will expand as it gets warmer.”

But more powerful computers and ever-richer data sets with higher resolution and more extensive coverage are enabling better models to account for more and more variables. For instance, Sobel was able to calculate that about eight inches of Hurricane Sandy’s nine-foot storm surge can be attributed to global warming.

“A good chunk of the improvement in the models is better computing,” said Sobel, author of Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future. “Every few years we can do something we wouldn’t have thought of before.”

Following their introductory conversation with Dean Boyce, the professors turned to their attention to audience—in a departure from the format of many talks, faculty presentations only account for about 20 minutes of a Tech Talk, with the lion’s share of the time reserved for student questions. Attendees took advantage of the extended Q&A to probe issues ranging from how to dispel disinformation in the media to career paths in climate science. On that last point, at least one picture emerged clearly.

“The weather is probably just going to get worse,” Sobel noted wryly. “It’s good for job security.”

by Jesse Adams

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