Jiwen Fan of the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has been selected to receive a 2017 Early Career Research Program award from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Fan is one of 59 recipients nationwide -- including 21 at national laboratories -- to receive the award this year.
Fan, a scientist in the Atmospheric Sciences and Global Change Division at PNNL, will use the award to study severe thunderstorms in the central United States - storms that produce large hail, damaging winds, tornadoes, and torrential rainfall. Fan will look at how the storms form, why they're changing and how they're influenced by several factors, including the growth of cities as well as the effects of wildfires hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
At any given moment, there are 2,000 thunderstorms in progress across the globe, according to the National Severe Storms Laboratory. The storms are an incredibly powerful brew of natural phenomena. Typically, warm air rising from the Earth's surface cools as it moves higher, causing cloud droplets to form. Under certain conditions, storms can quickly become fierce.
Thunderstorms in the nation's heartland are growing more frequent and violent, and scientists like Fan are starting to learn why. One reason is the growth of cities like Kansas City, Dallas and Oklahoma City - expanding urban "heat islands" that soak in light and trap more heat. This boosts the amount of energy near the Earth's surface, increasing the severity of thunderstorms that form. Cities also tend to have more airborne particles, which can influence cloud growth. Fan thinks these are important factors for understanding why severe thunderstorms occur more frequently over cities in the Midwest than they do over rural areas.
Wildfires, which are becoming more common and cover larger areas than they did just a few decades ago, might also feed thunderstorms in the central United States. Fires not only in the western United States, such as California, but also in Central America pump vast numbers of tiny particles into the atmosphere. Those particles change the way energy moves around the atmosphere and they can also help cloud droplets form. Particles that drift in the atmosphere to areas like Kansas or Oklahoma can increase the intensity of thunderstorms, leading to stronger rainfall, hail and even tornadoes.
Fan will put these and other factors together to more fully understand severe thunderstorm formation and intensity and how that is changing in the central United States. She will draw on powerful supercomputers managed by DOE to conduct an unprecedented close-up look at the roles that several different factors play in shaping severe thunderstorms.
The Early Career Research Program, now in its eighth year, is managed by DOE's Office of Science and awards research grants to young scientists and engineers at U.S. universities and national laboratories. The grants are designed to bolster the nation's scientific workforce by providing support to exceptional researchers during the crucial early years of their careers.
"Scientists recognized with this prestigious award represent some of the brightest minds in the nation. We are fortunate to have Jiwen on our team at PNNL, where her expertise in atmospheric chemistry has advanced our understanding of severe weather events and other complexities within our Earth system," said Steven Ashby, director of PNNL. "Her dedication and creativity exemplifies PNNL's commitment to scientific excellence and support of the Office of Science mission."
Fan, who has been at PNNL for 10 years, will receive $2.5 million over the next five years to further her research. The funds will support not only Fan but also several post-doctoral research associates.
This year's awards bring to 14 the number won by PNNL staff since the program's inception in 2010. More information on the program can be found at DOE's Early Career Research Program website.