A Scientist's Life: Julie Kalansky

Climate scientist studies atmospheric river characteristics

Julie Kalansky is a climate scientist and deputy director for operations at the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes (CW3E) at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. She received her MS from the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography and her PhD from Rutgers University’s Marine and Coastal Sciences Program. She came to CW3E as a postdoctoral researcher in 2014 and has continued with the center ever since.
explorations now (en): What do you do for a living?

Julie Kalansky (JK): I study atmospheric rivers at the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes (CW3E) at Scripps Oceanography. For those who don't know, they're just what they sound like, rivers of water vapor in the sky. When they intersect with our mountains and coastline, they can produce a large amount of precipitation. Here on the West Coast, they are really important for our water supply. And if there are too many too quickly, they can produce flooding. In fact, they're responsible for most of the flooding events in California. 

en: What are some of the main questions those in your field are trying to answer?

JK: We want to understand the meteorology that causes atmospheric rivers and use this information to help better predict them and understand what this means for rainfall and snowfall on land. We have a basic understanding in terms of how climate change may affect atmospheric rivers, but are researching how these will intersect with drought, and transition from rain to snow, to have a more complete picture of the future impacts to water supply and flooding. I focus largely on California, but atmospheric rivers occur throughout other countries as well. Thinking about the forecast of atmospheric rivers, we want to know how impactful they are going to be. Scripps Oceanography has developed an atmospheric river scale, an indication of when an atmospheric river is most likely going to be more beneficial versus more hazardous.

There are also internal dynamics associated with atmospheric rivers during or right after them that can cause high intensity precipitation. The features are called narrow cold frontal rainbands, which can have large impacts because it's a lot of rain in a short time. Sewer systems, for example, aren’t always equipped to deal with a large amount of rain in that short period.

The January 2023 sequence of atmospheric rivers was unique in terms of how quickly one atmospheric river followed the last. It's something that we really haven't seen in the historical record. We want to understand if this is something that's more predictable or forecasted to become more frequent in the future.

en: What are the tools you use in your research?

JK: We study atmospheric rivers in a whole bunch of different ways. One is through modeling, so we use computers and weather models to understand how we can better forecast them. Another way is by using a suite of different sorts of observations to understand how atmospheric rivers can change and how these impact the forecast. The really neat observations are from airplanes that fly through atmospheric rivers and drop instruments through them to measure them. Those data go into forecasting models and can improve the models. We also have instruments that look up into the sky to measure how much water vapor is in the sky and how atmospheric rivers change once they come on land. We study hydrology, which means streamflow impacts and soil moisture. We determine the altitudes when snow turns into rain, called the freezing level.

en: What do you like about the job?

JK: When people ask me what I like about my job, the first thing I always say is that I work with a really amazing group of people. They're all extremely bright, dedicated, creative and interested in the work. That constant opportunity to collaborate and think about new ideas is really, really exhilarating and fun. The other part is that I feel the work we're doing, however idealistic it sounds, is helping in our corner of the world and is making progress towards a more resilient state.

en: Why did you want to come to Scripps Oceanography?

JK: I wanted to come to Scripps Oceanography because I grew up in Southern California and I always knew Scripps existed and I was really interested in it. I went to graduate school on the East Coast and was presented with an opportunity to come back to Southern California. I'd become very interested in climate and weather and I had always thought about Scripps in relation to oceanography. While there's a strong linkage there, I wanted to make sure that I could work in climate and as I started talking to people at Scripps, I was very pleased to understand how much work is going on climate change and the impact of that. I had an opportunity to work with CW3E and it was just an ideal match.

About Scripps Oceanography

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego is one of the world’s most important centers for global earth science research and education. In its second century of discovery, Scripps scientists work to understand and protect the planet, and investigate our oceans, Earth, and atmosphere to find solutions to our greatest environmental challenges. Scripps offers unparalleled education and training for the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders through its undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs. The institution also operates a fleet of four oceanographic research vessels, and is home to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public exploration center that welcomes 500,000 visitors each year.

About UC San Diego

At the University of California San Diego, we embrace a culture of exploration and experimentation. Established in 1960, UC San Diego has been shaped by exceptional scholars who aren’t afraid to look deeper, challenge expectations and redefine conventional wisdom. As one of the top 15 research universities in the world, we are driving innovation and change to advance society, propel economic growth and make our world a better place. Learn more at ucsd.edu.

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