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A Climate Scientist Rides the (Rossby) Wave of Discovery

This story is part of a series celebrating the work of women at the Earth Institute, in honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, 2021. Read more about the day and our related blog posts here.

mingfang ting photo
Mingfang Ting is a research professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Her work was recently recognized with an award from the American Meteorological Society.

For Mingfang Ting, a lifelong endeavor to understand climate through the prism of atmospheric science began with a suggestion. The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory research professor was born and raised in a Chinese province north of Shanghai during a time when going to college was highly regulated. The country had one college entrance exam for everyone who wanted to attend. After passing the test, prospective students had to fill in where they wanted to study and what they wanted to study. Ting filled in Peking University—considered the best in China—and wrote that she wanted to study physics or mathematics. When administrators read her file, it occurred to them Ting might a good fit to study earth science, so they asked her.

“Do you want to study earth science? I had no idea what that meant, but I said yes. If I had said no, maybe I could still go to university but not to Peking University. It was quite a nice coincidence that they put me in there, and I still enjoy it,” said Ting, who has carved out a life of remarkable discovery in a scientific discipline that has become a central concern for the world.

Last month Ting received the 2021 Distinguished Scientific/Technological Achievement Award in Climate Variability and Change from the American Meteorological Society. The award recognizes her “important contributions to our understanding of climate dynamics, often drawing upon ingenious generalizations of the stationary Rossby wave concept.”

We spoke to Ting about the honor and research.

What is your reaction to this recognition?

I was really blown away by that description of my work. I really appreciate my colleagues out there who remember me and gave me this honor.

You study Rossby Waves—planetary waves that play a significant role in shaping weather—including how they change with global warming, and how they trigger changes. What questions drive your research?

Rossby waves and their propagations are fundamental ways the atmosphere carries its signal (low and high pressure anomalies) from one location to another — El Niño-Southern Oscillation being one of the good examples. Rossby waves can link convection anomalies in the tropical central Pacific to the United States and beyond. My research tries to address questions like how are regional climates changing and why. In particular, how are regional changes linked to wave dynamics and remote forcing. So, I’m driven by questions like why is one particular region drier or wetter than normal? Are changes in Rossby wave propagation the reason? If so, why is the wave propagation changing? Atmospheric Rossby waves are also crucial in shaping the storm tracks, preferred paths for midlatitude weather disturbances. Another question of my research also focuses on how storm tracks and Rossby waves interact with each other.

If we can better understand these questions, it will help us predict regional climate anomalies, such as droughts and extreme heat conditions, that could—for example—harm crop production. We can inform stakeholders in those regions and they can work to mitigate the effect.

What are you working on now?

I am leading a project studying heatwaves, exploring how the [Rossby] waves are changing so that they may be more persistent in some regions and cause more heat wave phenomena, and whether co-occurrence of heat extremes at different locations are becoming more prevalent. The heatwave project is focusing on distinguishing between two types of heat extremes. One is the extreme dry heat which means increasing temperature, not necessarily humidity. The other involves high heat and humidity. We look at how these two types of extreme events are generated differently. Is the humid heat extreme increasing more than the dry heat or vice versa? What are the impacts of the two types of extremes on agriculture and human health, for example.

As a scientist who has a growing understanding of Earth dynamics and how the Rossby waves and global warming are changing conditions on our planet, what concerns you the most?

Obviously things are getting more and more extreme. Global mean temperature continues to rise. But it’s not just about the one degree or two degrees of warming, it’s the consequences of the warming that are really concerning. Just look at the 2020 hurricane and wildfire seasons. Currently, we have a really severe drought in the Southwest. That’s dangerous and really makes me worry because we might see another extreme fire season coming up. We don’t even know what’s coming in the future—how extreme or how fast. Some of what we’re seeing is already exceeding our most severe predictions. I worry that we may be underestimating the severity of the impacts of climate change.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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