To celebrate Women’s History Month, we asked women throughout NOAA Research who make lasting impacts in scientific research, leadership, and support from the field to the office to share how their work contributes to NOAA’s mission of Climate Resilience and preparing for a Climate-Ready Nation. This article highlights an interview with Shan Sun, a meteorologist at the Global Systems Laboratory (GSL) in Boulder, Colorado.
Our conversation follows:
What does climate resilience or climate-ready nation mean to you? What would you want people to know about NOAA’s work on climate resilience?
I believe achieving climate resilience has three components: education, mitigation, and preparedness. It is imperative that society accepts the reality of climate change and acknowledges the need for action. While the scientific community has reached a consensus on the physical issue, communication with the public is crucial to express the need for policy changes. Secondly, mitigation efforts must be undertaken to reduce and remove anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions from the global atmosphere by reducing fossil fuel consumption, advocating for energy conservation, and researching mitigating technologies (like carbon dioxide removal) and climate intervention. Lastly, it is essential to invest in preparedness and remediation for climate change impacts, which will likely increase in the future. I see earth system models as useful tools for improving disaster preparedness and adaptation to achieve climate resilience.
As the nation's leading agency in climate research, NOAA has been instrumental in advancing our understanding of climate change. NOAA is currently developing the state-of-the-art Unified Forecast System (UFS), which incorporates advanced computer models of the atmosphere, ocean, sea-ice and land. The UFS will provide more reliable weather and climate predictions that will help protect lives and property, support the economy, and promote public safety. It is my hope that the general public comes to understand the value of NOAA's work, the merit of its findings, and the urgency of action needed to achieve global climate resilience.
What projects or research are you working on now, and how does your work contribute to climate resilience?
At GSL, I lead the Subseasonal-to-Seasonal Branch of the Earth Prediction Advancement Division. I specialize in developing numerical models for weather forecasts that operate on a sub-seasonal to seasonal scale. In particular, I work on coupled models that incorporate two or more components of the Earth system, such as the atmosphere and the ocean, to improve forecast accuracy.
Numerical models are powerful tools that simulate the Earth system inside computers, allowing us to predict future events. While most people are familiar with their use in weather forecasts, computers are also essential for understanding the climate system. For example, by simulating climate change under different scenarios, we can investigate the impact of different levels of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions on extreme weather conditions or sea-level rise. This knowledge empowers us as a society to avoid unfavorable scenarios and better prepare for impending impacts, making climate modeling a cornerstone of climate resilience.
What drew you to your current field?
Growing up on the coast in Qingdao, China, I was always fascinated by the ocean and its daily changing tides and waves. I enjoyed the climate of the coast, but I couldn't help but wonder why the climate in inland areas was so different. This was one of the factors that led me to pursue a major in oceanography at the local Ocean University, and then to choose the Marine School at the University of Miami for graduate studies. My M.S. and Ph.D. work were on numerical modeling of ocean circulation, which launched my career as a “modeler,” a field that has made strides in recent years thanks to advancements in computing and information technology.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
Numerical modeling provides a unique opportunity to bridge theory and practice, which is something I find extremely rewarding. This field requires a deep understanding of the Earth system physics and the ability to accurately express this knowledge through numerical and programming skills. Being a scientist and programmer, I am mindful of the complex equations describing the planet's life-sustaining processes, and of our current limits in finding accurate solutions. Creating simulations of the world we live in is fulfilling because it allows us to explore and envision our future climate, much like feeling the gusts of wind before the metaphorical storm arrives.
Special thanks to Shan Sun for participating in this interview for Women’s History Month at NOAA.