Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Career of the Month

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Career of the Month

Article excerpt

Climate Scientist

Climate scientists study the physics and chemistry of Earth systems and their resulting and projected impact on human and environmental systems. Melissa Allen is a climate scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where she uses computational models to identify the vulnerabilities of our built infrastructure to extreme weather events related to climate change.


Work overview.

I look at how extreme weather affects infrastructure and city dwellers' lives, then work with government agencies and city planners to develop resilience strategies.

For instance, if a natural disaster leaves a community without electricity, then its wastewater-treatment pump may also not function, causing flooding, potentially making roads impassable and limiting the delivery of goods to businesses and other infrastructure. Tracking the processes by which such cascading failures occur allows us to examine, from the national to city level, solutions for physical, economic, and communications aspects of the overall system.

Sometimes we study the consequences of past weather events, but we also look into the future, say, if some weather events expected to happen every 100 years start happening every 20 years instead. In this case, we might need to adopt different engineering standards with different tolerances to make structures more resilient. This would need to be done in a cost-effective way, perhaps by making adjustments during routine infrastructure upgrades.

To get a better idea of our future climate, we compare measurements of atmospheric components--such as temperature, carbon dioxide, and precipitation--collected at measurement stations around the globe with output from modeled historical simulations. The model usually runs from the year 1750 to the present. We rely on ice-core data and tree rings to estimate the measurements in the years before satellites began making recordings in the 1970s. That gives us an idea of the range of uncertainty in the model.

Career highlights.

One of my papers was published in the journal Nature Energy. …

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