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Earth Day Awareness Year-Round

ICTP Postdoctoral Fellows Dive In

Earth Day Awareness Year-Round
Earth Day Awareness Year-Round

09/04/2019 - Trieste

Recent international events concerning weather and climate are once again raising awareness of the increasing effects of global warming. From global climate demonstrations to the 69th annual World Meteorology Day, and to the upcoming Earth Day on 22 April, people are showing their growing concern for the state of the environment. 

For researchers in ICTP’s Earth System Physics section (ESP), the state of the climate is a perennial topic of investigation. Their work provides valuable insight that not only allows for a deeper understanding of our planet, but also provides strategies to help face the increasing threats of climate change. Led by climatologist Filippo Giorgi, a contributor to the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the ESP section is renowned for its high level of expertise and especially its climate models. The section supports a full-time research staff of seven scientists, as well as a rich environment for visiting scientists and postdoctoral students. 

Climatology combines many fields and forms of technology. Though related, meteorology and climatology are not synonymous. Meteorology is the study of weather, the very short-term, day-in and day-out temperature and pressure changes. In contrast, climatologists track global weather patterns over many years and much larger regions, combining multiple fields and forms of technology. Postdoctoral Fellows in the ESP program each have different interests and specialize in researching different questions related to climate. Through their combined lenses they aim to form comprehensive representations of climate and climate change.

Postdoctoral fellow Marco Reale studies interactions between marine biogeochemistry and climate change. The impacts of global warming are perhaps most visible in Earth’s oceans, but while rising sea levels are observable to anyone, microscopic marine landscapes are shifting just as quickly. Reale explains how plankton, the base of the marine food chain, interact with atmospheric carbon dioxide. “Phytoplankton in the ocean play a similar role to trees,” Reale explained, and through photosynthesis they allow the ocean to absorb a lot of carbon dioxide. This chemical exchange slows the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But rising global temperatures hinder planktons' ability to photosynthesize, which means carbon dioxide concentrations rise more quickly than they otherwise would. Reale’s research demonstrates how global warming affects even Earth’s most microscopic ecosystems, and vice versa. 

Postdoctoral fellow Susanna Strada also researches connections between plants and air quality, though her studies lie upon land, combining her background in physics with interests in chemistry and botany. She studies the emission of biogenic volatile organic compounds (BVOC), otherwise known as essential oils. While BVOCs play important roles in the well-being of plants, they also interact in multiple ways with climate. “When in the atmosphere, they are very reactive and can participate in the production of surface ozone, which is an air pollutant,” she says. The recipe for surface ozone, Strada explained, requires that BVOCs mix with high concentrations of nitrogen oxide under warm and sunny conditions. In cities, where heavy traffic and industry sustain high nitrogen emissions, BVOCs can have a significant impact on air quality. Strada hopes her research, paired with actions to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions, will help urban areas make informed decisions in the types of plants they choose to grow.

The ESP section, and climatologists in general, often use computer models to study past and future climate shifts. One such model, RegCM, is a regional climate model developed at ICTP and the National Center for Atmospheric Research in the USA. While global models simulate Earth’s entire climate, regional models are only applied to one specific zone at a time, with higher resolution. The RegCM model has over 600 users worldwide who form a network of scientists that together can map out each region of Earth in great detail. 

Postdoctoral fellow Jose Abraham Torres-Alavez uses RegCM to track patterns of tropical cyclones. He hopes the information collected by the model can help regions that lack highly-developed climate technology. “In countries like Mexico and those in Central America, it’s difficult to have the technology to run these kinds of models. It’s helpful that we can do this,” he says, adding, “this information can help these countries prepare for the effects of climate change.” With its origins in Trieste, RegCM has taken on global significance. 

Despite large advances in modeling technology, climate prediction models still face obstacles. During her Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow Rita Nogherotto helped develop the RegCM code for simulating clouds. She explained how clouds are difficult to recreate in computer models and remain one of the largest areas of uncertainty in climate predictions. Predictions are more accurate when data is gathered and compared between RegCM’s many users. “The idea is to run more models on the same domain,” says Nogherotto, “so that you can compare and make a projection for the future.” 

World Meteorological Day and Earth Day help promote an awareness of and appreciation for Earth’s systems. Whether through plankton, BVOCs, cyclones or modeling systems, ICTP climatologists study and appreciate the Earth year-round. Their research strengthens our understanding of the complex factors of climate change, and provides strategies to mediate its effects. 


---Maria Leuzinger