State of the Planet

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Faculty Spotlight: Finding Hope Through Climate Science Research and Education

As a teenager in China, Mingfang Ting remembers having to choose her college major when she was just 15 years old. “That was how the education system worked at the time,” she says. Ting knew she loved math and science, so when administrators directed her to a meteorology track at Peking University—though she didn’t fully understand where that track would lead—she was intrigued; so much so that she continued on to a master’s degree in meteorology at Peking University, where she began her research in atmospheric science.

But it wasn’t until Ting came to the U.S. for a Ph.D. at Princeton University in the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory that she zeroed in on climate science. “That’s where I started thinking about ocean–atmosphere interaction. The longer time-scale climate phenomena really got me hooked,” she says.

In the years since, Ting has become the founding member and co-director of the M.A. Program in Climate and Society and co-senior director for education at the Columbia Climate School. An internationally recognized climate scientist, Ting was also recently appointed to a tenure-track professor of climate at the Climate School, transitioning from her role as a Lamont Research Professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Below, Ting discusses the education initiatives she is most excited about this year; her recent focus on heat waves and agricultural workers; and why she believes deeper knowledge of climate science can also generate hope.

What topics are you currently studying?

One of my recent research topics is the Asian monsoon variability and change, which is a hugely important rainfall system in the Asian region as it impacts about a third of the world’s population. For example, Asian monsoon rainfall plays a critical role in providing water for agriculture across the region, as farmers rely heavily on monsoon rains to irrigate their crops. When anthropogenic forcing changes the pattern or intensity of rainfall, it has a direct impact on people’s lives. I have spent quite a bit of time understanding how the Asian monsoon responds to climate change, both through greenhouse gas warming and aerosols, which are affecting seasonal rainfall as well as extreme rainfall.

Another focus is on heat waves and extreme heat events. In a recent paper, for example, we looked at the Pacific Northwest heatwave to understand what causes that extremity, which was over five standard deviations above normal conditions—almost impossible to happen in a world without considering climate change as a factor.

Are there other projects you’d like to highlight?

I’ve started researching the impact of heat on both crops and human health. Two recent papers I’m very proud of looked at how extreme heat impacts the crops in the U.S. Corn Belt region—both extreme dry heat and extreme humid heat. We found that the two types of heat are quite different, and that strategies like irrigation, for example, could actually help to turn a dry heat into a humid heat condition, which won’t cause yield loss nearly as much as a dry heat would.

The other recent paper is on agricultural workers and how they are affected by increasing extreme heat. We looked at different crops and how they each individually impact the workers based on the location they’re planting in, the crop season and how extreme heat conditions are during those seasons. We’ve seen a significant increasing trend of this potential exposure to hazardous conditions for agricultural workers, especially rice workers; additionally, humid heat, with high temperature and high humidity, is having a big health impact on people working in these fields.

Shifting to your role as educator, which classes are you most excited to teach? What goals do you have for your students?

I have been heavily involved in educational programs within the Climate School because I co-direct the Master of Arts Program in Climate and Society. As the co-senior director for education, I’ve also been involved in the design of new educational programs, which means quite a bit of my time is devoted to thinking about education within the school.

I teach the Climate and Society core climate science course, “Dynamics of Climate Variability and Climate Change.” Climate and Society program students are interested in solution-oriented knowledge to help society deal with the climate crisis. But they need to have some foundational understanding of how the climate system works, which I’m very excited to teach and hopefully impart my enthusiasm for. It’s a challenge because the students are mixed in their academic backgrounds, coming mostly from social sciences, arts and humanities, so they often encounter difficulties with physics or math concepts needed for the course. We’re using the flipped classroom format, meaning we record short video lectures for them each week, and they watch these at their own pace before coming to class. In class, we do Q&As about the lectures, then go through class activities that help them understand the material and work through the problem sets. It’s been a lot of work to design and implement this new format, but I’m very happy with the feedback from students so far.

Have you noticed more curiosity in climate education?

Overall, we’ve seen interest in the Climate School growing. This year we had 103 incoming students in the M.A. in Climate and Society program, which is the first time we have crossed the three-digit threshold. We are currently proposing to expand the program and adding more options, including an M.S. in Climate in addition to the M.A.

Do you have any advice for people who are interested in entering the climate science field but don’t know how to begin?

If they are interested, concerned, worried, they should come take a course. I think we’re all depressed by the worsening conditions, the extremes and disasters we see every day related to climate change. But there is hope and there are ways to try to reverse it. Understanding the climate science will definitely make people more hopeful for the future and what they can do to help.

What is bringing you the most hope right now?

Despite the political environment of different countries and places, I think we are seeing increasing renewable energy use everywhere, and not just because of a mandate. People realize it’s a good thing to do and also economically viable. I was in China this summer to visit family for the first time since COVID, and I was so impressed by how many people were driving electric cars. It’s not because all of them are thinking about the environment; they actually like the electric cars because they are cool, convenient and cheap, since they save a lot of money on fuel. While there, I was doing a very inaccurate scientific survey on the road and counting the cars with green license plates, meaning electric, versus the regular plates. My rough estimate was one third of the road. So while we are not necessarily going to change everyone’s mind about climate change, in reality, things will change because of economic and practical reasons. We have a lot more to do, but there is definitely hope.

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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Linda Ryan
Linda Ryan
5 months ago

I’m so glad that this school exists and there are scientists like Dr. Ting. It gives me hope for our planet.