University: Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands 

Research topic: Extreme rainfall indices at local scale to support crop insurance for small-holder farmers in Africa

How did you end up doing research in the area of extreme weather events?

After completing my bachelor and master degrees in numerical mathematics, I started to seek possibilities to use my knowledge and techniques to solve real world problems. During my PhD I focused on environmental issues in applied mathematics, and I noticed my interest in applications that involve or impact human activities. Then I became part of a crop insurance project for the Water Resources group at Delft Technical University which aims to protect low-income farmers and deal with food security problems impacted by climate change. It requires accurate identification, detection, and prediction of extreme weather events to diagnose the relationship between crop losses and adverse weather conditions, and make strategies to reduce the losses. Here I finally found my way to link my mathematical background, weather models, and the environment and society.

Why focus on rainfall?

The economy of most African countries is dependent on rain-fed agriculture, which is highly vulnerable to variations in the amount of rainfall. Not only agricultural production is affected by rainfall, but societies and ecosystems can also be affected. Flood, as a consequence of heavy rainfall, can damage building and infrastructure, disrupt transport and communications, and even threaten human life. Rainfall is always an important but most unpredictable atmospheric variable. The rain producing mechanisms are not fully understood or accurately described by mathematical equations. Climate  changes make it more difficult to capture recent and future rainfall patterns, with the wet regions getting wetter, and dry regions drier, with extreme rainfall occurring more frequently and the variability of rainfall increasing everywhere.

Where do you see the greatest benefit of modern technology regarding mitigating climate risks?

The fast growth of modern technology influences our understanding of climate risks and our decisions to mitigate them across all aspects. Observation techniques such as satellites with global coverage and low-budget weather stations that allow for a denser network of in-situ measurements, help us to monitor the Earth and collect information. Big data combined with data analysis tools improve our understanding of the problem and help to reveal the possible reasons behind it. Increased computer power gives the modelling of weather dynamics and weather-human relationships higher resolution, thus making the diagnosis and prediction of extreme weather more accurate. New communication and transportation tools can make the transfer and spread of knowledge faster and clearer, and they also make cooperation between multiple disciplines, different institutes and different countries possible and easier. The integration of this technology creates a chain of people collecting and analyzing data, identifying and predicting hazards through weather models, assessing risks by combing weather data and weather-related risk models, and testing possible ways of preventing disasters and reducing losses. Then, finally, decisions can be made about mitigating climate risks.

How do you think your work can be applied in this area in the future?

My work can easily link between weather data or models and risk models to assess hazard and risk in multiple rainfall-related applications, for instance linking drought to crop losses for crop insurance and heavy rainfall to flood in flood-warning systems. By further including cross-functional knowledge, my work can also bridge the gaps between end users and model or data developers. As my research goes on, I would like to develop a rainfall model that can accurately capture extreme weather events in historical records and predict the rainfall field in a Nowcasting style, and my current work can be used to evaluate models from multiple aspects based on the needs of stakeholders.

What’s your favorite weather related movie?

The Day After Tomorrow.

University: Newcastle University, the United Kingdom 

Research topic: Broad-scale flood model validation and sensitivity analysis using cloud computing

How did you end up doing research in the area of extreme weather events?

While studying Geography at the University of Dundee I became particularly interested in hydrology, partly because I enjoy whitewater kayaking. I then wrote a dissertation about estimating extreme river flows in ungauged catchments. After completing that, I was advised to apply for a place on the Data Risk and Environmental Analytical Methods PhD programme at Newcastle University. There were a range of projects available and I chose the one most related to flooding, which is usually caused by extreme weather events.

Why focus on floods?

Floods are commonly described as a major hazard globally, but the processes behind their probability and severity are extremely difficult to measure and simulate accurately. The uncertainties involved are substantial but precise estimates of flood risk are required to make decisions about planning, emergency response, and insurance premiums. Therefore understanding this uncertainty should be a serious priority when considering how to adapt for and reduce flood risk, however the scale of uncertainty in flood risk estimation is often not fully appreciated. I think more research in the area could help improve this understanding. The other element that I find interesting about floods is their uniquely spatial nature, which makes getting precise estimates of risk even more challenging.

Where do you see the greatest benefit of modern technology regarding mitigating climate risks?

I see remote sensing technology on board drones and satellites as a major development in the area of climate risk mitigation, as more detailed observations of hazards can inform better decisions and enable more effective model validation. The internet as a means of communicating risk is another important factor. Modern building techniques such as permeable paving and green infrastructure can also go some way to mitigating less extreme heat waves and floods.

How do you think your work can be applied in this area in the future?

As new datasets become available, describing both the climate and land surface, the effects they have on risk estimates must be considered. More data means more choice, and choosing only a single dataset without considering the range of flood risk estimates that may be produced using others can lead to overconfidence in accuracy. My work provides a methodology to compare the effects of using different datasets to enable more informed decisions. I have also demonstrated the importance of validating model outputs using multiple sources of observational data, which is something that should be widely adopted.

What’s your favourite weather related movie?

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

University: Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany 

Research topic: Higher-order economic losses and damages due to extreme weather events along the global supply network

How did you end up doing research in the area of extreme weather events?

When finishing my physics major at university I was very much interested in complex systems since their emergent behavior actually shapes our every-day world. In particular human systems, such as economic systems, pose lots of fascinating questions with potentially actionable answers. On the other hand, the issue of climate change always moved me and so I decided to pursue a PhD in the economics of climate change. As extreme weather events are still not as well-represented in this field of research as they could be, this was the direction I wanted to go in. Through my PhD I could perfectly combine these interests, and work on a complex model of the impacts of extreme weather events on global supply chains.

Why focus on floods?

After the supply chain loss model was setup, I wanted to apply it to projections of future extreme weather events. Of these, floods have always had a large, often devastating, impact. Additionally, floods are projected to increase in many places due to global warming; to put it simply, warmer air holds more moisture, so we can expect wet areas on the globe to become wetter. As rivers constitute important structures in societies, human settlements, and economic activity, we have to find ways to cope with existing and even changing risk of river floods. Though there is of course always room for improvement, flood modeling is quite advanced and data on projected flood events are quite well established, especially compared to other kinds of extreme weather events. As such, floods tell the story of extreme weather events and their changing conditions quite well. I think I could contribute to the exploration of this field.

Where do you see the greatest benefit of modern technology regarding mitigating climate

risks?

I believe the first step to deal with climate risks is to actually get a detailed picture of what is to come and what is to be prepared for. The vast amounts of data that would be useful for such an endeavor - such as satellite imagery or measurements of weather variables and gauge levels - are an ever increasing treasure. Fortunately, with modern computing we now have the possibility to explore these resources and model possible futures, as well as simulate possible mitigation measures. Additionally, mobile communication technologies not only enable us to derive real-time data and build early warning systems, in an extreme event situation they can also be used to warn people at risk and help them cope. If we are willing to use them correctly, information technologies can help humanity organize in a much more resilient and sustainable way.

How do you think your work can be applied in this area in the future?

My work contributes directly to advancing the kind of simulations and numerical assessments I mentioned. On the one hand, having a more detailed knowledge of flood risk guides adaptation, especially in areas of high exposure to changing risk. On the other hand, the loss-propagation model I developed can help to identify bottle-necks or vulnerable structures in supply and trade relations. Given such information we can find ways to organize such economic relations in a structurally more resilient way in order to mitigate supply failures, in particular for essential goods. Ideally, the model can one day evolve into an exploration tool or early warning system to help companies and policy makers make informed decisions about potential risks or even imminent indirect disaster impacts.

What’s your favorite weather related movie?

Maybe only indirectly weather related but nicely showing how we humans depend on climatic and weather conditions: In the 1973 movie “The Wicker Man” a police sergeant arrives on a mission on a remote Scottish island inhabited by a modern pagan society. The last crop harvest had failed and he soon suspects the islanders to be planning a human sacrifice to ensure a good next harvest.

University:  University of Bristol, the United Kingdom 

Research topic: Understanding flood risk at large spatial scales

How did you end up doing research in the area of extreme weather events?

If I'm honest, it is a culmination of coincidences and good fortune. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation at the University of Bristol on flood modelling, primarily because I just completed Paul Bates' lecture series on flooding and felt like it was something I could research! From there, I got involved with a flood modelling start-up which spun out of the University of Bristol – Fathom – which is successfully commercialising these cutting-edge tools by producing flood models on the global scale. They then funded my PhD at the University of Bristol to test, develop, and improve their US-wide flood model. I am yet to move very far; staying put as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bristol.

Why focus on floods?

Floods are such a devastating peril, touching so many lives and livelihoods across the planet. In this era of rapid climatic shifts, we risk making an already critical problem even worse. Yet flood modelling is almost unique in the natural sciences in that our ability to model them accurately has undergone a quantum leap in recent years. 10 years ago floods could only be modelled laboriously river-by-river, greatly inhibiting wide-area understanding of flood risk. Nowadays, Fathom and other commercial and academic entities model flooding at continental and global scales. As these tools continue to improve – particularly with the transparency and reassurance provided through subjecting them to peer-review – large-scale flood modelling is allowing for resilience to be built through regulation, insurance, and planning like never before.

Where do you see the greatest benefit of modern technology regarding mitigating climate risks?

Our ability to simulate physical phenomena and their impacts. Global-scale data acquisition from improvements to satellite remote sensing and ever-faster computers have increased and will continue to increase the fidelity of hazard models. However, end-users (be it insurers, governments, corporations or the general public) need to be communicated with to make the possible benefits of these scientific advances tangibly felt. Notwithstanding the need for continued scientific inquiry, we actually have the tools at our disposal right now to mitigate climate risks — we just need to work out how we put them into action.

How do you think your work can be applied in this area in the future?

My work can be applied right now. I've shown traditional approaches to understanding flood risk in the US and globally are severe mis-estimates, yet my validation of emerging large-scale model structures suggests that these information gaps can be reliably filled. Insurers can expand the scale of their exposure with confidence, emergency managers can utilise real-time seamless inundation forecasts, and governments can regulate and plan using data that avoids many of the pitfalls of historic approaches. I also hope the framework for model validation and development is replicated (both in commercial and academic spheres) as we scientists continue our endeavour for global-scale flood models with local relevance.

What’s your favourite weather related movie?

It's a bit of a reach, but Groundhog Day.