News Story

May 21, 2020
HUCE Communications

HUCE Faculty Profile: Zhiming Kuang

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By Jonathan Mingle

Zhiming Kuang studies the physics of how air, moisture and energy move around the globe, and how that large-scale circulation interacts with tropical convection—with important implications for anticipating how rainfall patterns might change as the Earth warms. He develops theoretical and numerical models to better characterize large-scale features of the atmosphere, such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation and the South Asian Monsoon, drawing on advanced mathematics, statistics, physics and data analysis to render these complex systems in ever-finer detail.

With a degree in space physics from Peking University and a Ph.D. in planetary science from Caltech, Kuang came to Harvard in 2005. As the Gordon McKay Professor of Atmospheric and Environmental Science in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and SEAS, he teaches courses on the physics of climate, mathematical modeling and tropical dynamics.

“I always wanted to do physics,” he says, “but I gradually developed the sense that I wanted to do something with more practical applications.” This desire drew him into atmospheric and climate science, where he continues to plumb the theoretical depths of his field even as he works to develop useful tools such as seasonal forecasting methods for the monsoon.

Because of the wide range of scales involved in studying it, describing tropical convection in detail has been a challenge for researchers. Kuang’s models capture the connections between tropical convection and the atmosphere’s large-scale flow, including new explanations for the emergence and behavior of large-scale “tropical waves”—troughs of low pressure that move from east to west over the ocean, contributing to the formation of storms. These waves aren’t well-predicted by global climate models, according to Kuang.

Another exceedingly complex climate phenomenon is the South Asian Monsoon, on which over a billion people depend for their water supplies. Kuang’s work on the controlling factors of the monsoon has upended conventional wisdom. In an influential 2010 paper with William Boos, a former Environmental Fellow at HUCE, Kuang demonstrated that the monsoon circulation is largely controlled by the insulation effect created by the Himalayan mountain range, rather than the massive heating of air above the highly reflective Tibetan Plateau, as scientists previously thought. The findings suggest that changes in the Plateau’s albedo might be less important than changes in land use south of the Himalaya, which can alter the temperature of the boundary layer and the amount of moisture available to help fuel the monsoon system.

Kuang’s other core area of focus is exploring the complex physics behind the large-scale process of convection—the “why” to complement the approximation of “how” it works. That involves building statistical models and conducting novel theoretical experiments to describe the behavior of clouds and other convective dynamics.

Leveraging these insights and techniques, Kuang is keen to improve our ability to predict extreme weather events. He is engaged in projects investigating the physics of how the eyewalls of hurricanes collapse and how tornadoes are formed. He also wants to improve seasonal forecasts of the monsoon, and our ability to predict “blocking events,” episodes of stagnation leading to extreme weather such as cold snaps and heat waves. These questions are related to a new project Kuang is pursuing with HUCE colleagues: studying smog events in China, and how acute pollution episodes might be connected to such blocking events in Siberia.

By creating more realistic representations of these chaotic, dynamic processes, Kuang helps enable better predictions of both long-term climatic changes and short-term weather forecasts alike.

Research Areas: 

Harvard University
Center for the Environment

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