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UML Researchers Shed Light on Climate Change Science

Kennedy College of Sciences Faculty, Students and Alumni Take 100th AMS Meeting by Storm

Grad student Michael Follensbee points to his research poster Photo by Ed Brennen
Graduate student Michael Follensbee shares research on how short-term atmospheric patterns in the lowest layer of the atmosphere can influence the stratospheric polar vortex at the 100th annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society in Boston.

01/23/2020
By Ed Brennen

Given the chances of a snowstorm in New England in mid-January, it was risky for the American Meteorological Society (AMS) to hold its 100th annual meeting in Boston.  

Turns out the thousands of meteorologists, climate scientists, hydrologists and academics – including many faculty, students and alumni from the Kennedy College of Sciences – who descended on the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center for the weeklong event were better off packing shorts and T-shirts than winter coats and snow boots.

On the conference’s opening weekend (Jan. 11-12), temperatures soared to 70 degrees in Boston on consecutive January days for the first time since record-keeping began in 1872. That Sunday, Boston hit a record high of 74 degrees – more than 40 degrees above average.

“It’s totally bizarre. It felt like summer,” says Frank Colby, a professor in the Department of Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (EEAS) who presented his research on why weather models had trouble forecasting the track of 2018’s Hurricane Florence at the annual meeting.

“I like warm weather, but something about 74 degrees in January feels so strange that I can’t enjoy it,” adds EEAS Prof. Mathew Barlow, who had several students presenting research throughout the week. 
Juliette Rooney-Varga talks with two conference attendees about the En-ROADS climate solutions simulator Photo by Ed Brennen
Assoc. Prof. of Environmental Sciences Juliette Rooney-Varga discusses the En-ROADS climate solutions simulator with conference-goers following her panel discussion.

The unusually warm weather provided a fitting backdrop to what UML participants say was the overriding theme of the convention: climate change.

“That’s what we should be seeing, because climate change is a real thing, and it’s a serious problem,” Colby says. “If we don’t do something soon, we’re going to see flooding in Boston. The Seaport’s going to be underwater.”

As part of the annual meeting’s conference on climate variability and change, Assoc. Prof. of Environmental Sciences Juliette Rooney-Varga led a panel discussion that examined how integrated assessment models – namely the En-ROADS climate solutions simulator that she’s helped develop through her work with Climate Interactive – can influence the technological, political and economic approaches to the issue.
 
“We want to give people the tools they need to learn for themselves, because we know from social science research that showing people climate research doesn’t work,” says Rooney-Varga, who is director of UML’s Climate Change Initiative. “Once we’ve got those tools in place, (En-ROADS presents) them in a format that you don’t need a Ph.D. or supercomputers to run.”
Mathias Collins, Mathew Barlow and Laurie Agel pose for a photo at the conference Photo by Ed Brennen
EEAS Prof. Mathew Barlow, center, and post-doctoral research associate Laurie Agel pose with their research collaborator, Mathias Collins, at the AMS annual meeting.

Laurie Agel, who earned her Ph.D. in marine sciences and technology from UML in 2018 (as part of the systemwide joint degree program) and now works with Barlow as a post-doctoral research associate, made two presentations: one on how computer models simulate extreme precipitation in the Northeast and another that examined how conditions such as rain, snow and soil moisture impact flooding in the Charles and Mystic river basins.

“The flooding topic was an offshoot of working with extreme precipitation, but now I find it very interesting, and I want to keep going with it,” says Agel, who plans to continue her research with the Merrimack River.

At the poster presentations, David Coe, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in marine sciences and technology, shared his research on summerlike weather extending into the fall season in New England, resulting in shorter winters and a shift in the growing season.

For the past three years, Coe has used the Python programming language to analyze atmospheric data clusters dating back to 1970. At the conference, he learned how to integrate Python with machine learning to analyze even larger data sets.

“Python’s one of the most widely used programming languages for meteorology, so learning more about how to fit it to what we’re using for this cluster has been really helpful,” says Coe, a Leominster native and Double River Hawk who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in atmospheric science and meteorology.
Ph.D. student David Coe explains his research to a conference-goer Photo by Ed Brennen
Ph.D. student David Coe explains his research on shifts in the fall season in New England during the poster presentations.

This was the third AMS conference for graduate student Michael Follensbee, but first as a poster presenter. Follensbee, who expects to complete a master’s degree in atmospheric science in May, has worked for the past year and a half with Barlow on his National Science Foundation-funded research on changes in the Siberian hydroclimate. Follensbee is specifically looking at the “precursors to the precursors of a polar vortex” to better predict when cold snaps may occur.

“The research I’ve done has been outside my comfort zone in terms of meteorology,” says Follensbee, a Vermont native who earned their bachelor’s degree in atmospheric science from Cornell University. “Professor Barlow helped me figure this out and feel comfortable enough about where I could continue the research. I’m happy to have brought it to the next step.”

Follensbee, who brought résumé copies and made business cards for the conference, enjoyed learning how colleagues at other institutions are answering climate-related questions.

“I’m hearing so many different sides beyond just the bubble of research that I’m doing, even though it’s all about the same values and measurements,” Follensbee says. “It’s opened myself up to a whole new world of meteorology, science and research.”
Frank Colby poses with alumni Beth Krajewski, Kim Calden, student Alex Przybylowicz and alum Henry Goodwin Photo by Ed Brennen
EEAS Prof. Frank Colby, left, poses with, from left, alumni Beth Krajewski and Kim Calden, student Alex Przybylowicz and alum Henry Goodwin during the poster presentations.

The balmy opening weekend included a student conference, where environmental science major Eric Roy presented on his work with Prof. Daniel Obrist on mercury pollution in forests, Lena Dziechowski participated on a graduate student panel and undergraduate students Danny Couto, Alex Przybylowicz, Stephen Sullivan and Roy also conducted student-led weather discussions. Students also took part in a career fair, and Assoc. Teaching Prof. Lori Weeden organized family-friendly weather games at the EEAS table at WeatherFest.

For Colby, having the AMS annual meeting in Boston this year meant running into many former students. Among them was Robert Hallowell ’85, a member of UML’s first graduating class in meteorology and a longtime research scientist at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory. 

“A lot of our alumni still live in the area, so it’s been really great,” says Colby, whose department is reinstating the bachelor of science in meteorology this fall. 
 
During the poster session, Colby caught up with another former student, Beth Krajewski ’01, ’09, an Amesbury native who earned her bachelor’s degree in meteorology and master’s in atmospheric science.
Students pose for a photo at the EEAS table during the student conference Photo by courtesy
Kennedy College of Sciences students man the EEAS table during the AMS annual meeting's student conference.

Krajewski now works as director of aviation operations for IBM’s The Weather Company in Andover, providing airlines and airports with weather forecasting services and technology such as cockpit applications for pilots.

“A lot of UMass Lowell alumni work on our team. It’s great,” says Krajewski, an occasional guest lecturer in Colby’s atmospheric science classes and a big proponent of the EEAS department.

“I’ve always said to people when they’re looking at different schools that UMass Lowell is nice because it’s a small enough program where you get one-on-one support from your professors,” she says. “It’s a tough major, but everyone bands together and works hard to get through all the math and physics.”