Climate extremes in a warming world

Climate change is already here. Deepti Singh is working to help people understand its impacts.

Deepti Singh earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering, planning to specialize in aeronautics and astronautics. Today, however, she is an assistant professor in WSU Vancouver’s  School of the Environment and a widely published expert on climate change.

Living in Bombay, India, between 2006 and 2008, Singh saw firsthand how extremely heavy rainfall events brought the city to a standstill. Effects were both immediate (lives lost, destroyed homes and transportation infrastructure) but also long term (waterborne diseases, food shortages). “Living there during that time made me think about how much weather conditions can affect us, particularly the most vulnerable people in our communities,” she said.

Deepti Singh, Assistant Professor in the School of the Environment,
WSU Vancouver

She moved to the U.S. to pursue her master’s degree at Purdue. There, she encountered the work of Noah Diffenbaugh, another influence on her career change. Diffenbaugh, currently a Stanford University professor, was teaching in the earth and atmospheric sciences program at Purdue, which was next door to the Aero-Astro engineering building where Singh spent most of her time. She took the opportunity to learn as much as she could about climate studies by attending seminars, talking to faculty and auditing courses. She was drawn to Diffenbaugh’s pragmatic approach to climate and how it affects society, especially in developing regions. 

By the time she contacted him, he had moved to Stanford. He accepted her into the Ph.D. program there. “I don’t know why he’d accept a student like me with no background in atmospheric or climate sciences,” Singh said. But he was intentionally creating an “interdisciplinary environment, which I think is needed to address the problems of climate change.”

Recent publications

Singh now has more than 40 publications on climate to her credit. In the last few months alone, three publications have featured work from her research group. 

The Singh lab group (including future scientists)

In October, Geophysical Research Letters published the results of a study by Singh and her postdoctoral research associate, Cassandra Rogers, demonstrating that the world is not only getting hotter but also more humid, and that people living in areas where humid-heat extremes are already a significant hazard are bearing the brunt of the impact. 

In November, the Journal of Climate published another study by Rogers and Singh showing that large heatwaves affecting multiple regions in the northern hemisphere simultaneously have become nearly six times more frequent since the 1980s. Such concurrent events threaten various interconnected social systems, including global food chains, emergency response systems and reinsurance industries. The authors conclude that identifying regions at high risk of concurrent heatwaves and understanding what drives them is important for evaluating projected climate risks and fostering regional preparedness. 

And in January, Science Advances released a study, coauthored with WSU Vancouver graduate student Dmitri Kalashnikov and others, that is particularly relevant to the western United States. It explores how large wildfires, rising extreme summer heat and changing weather patterns are driving increases in the number and spatial extent of harmful air quality episodes such as those in September and August 2020 that simultaneously affect millions of people. Such recurring and persistent episodes burden the healthcare system and disaster management. Singh is currently examining how extreme temperatures, such as heat waves and cold waves, affect the U.S. energy structure. 

Satellite image of wildfire smoke from numerous large fires burning across California spreading across the western U.S. on August 21, 2020, which contributed to 46 million people being simultaneously exposed to high concentrations of multiple harmful air pollutants. Our research shows that wildfires and changing weather patterns are making such widespread harmful air quality episodes larger and more frequent, posing major health risks to the western U.S. population

Singh uses a wide array of research tools include publicly available weather and climate data collected over the decades from ground-based observations, satellite and reanalyses to study historical climate conditions and extreme weather events. She also uses climate model simulations to diagnose the influence of human-activities on climate changes and extremes. 

Managing change

Singh’s goal is to help people prepare for and manage climate change. To that end, she talks to people who can help her understand the impact of climate change on everyday life. “What I’ve tried to do is understand what matters to people—just go and have conversations,” she said. “I don’t want to be a scientist who sits in their bubble and comes up with papers nobody reads.” For example, in studying the ever-heavier monsoons in India, she talked to nearly 2,000 farmers to learn how they had been affected and what they were doing to adapt. 

She is quick to say that scientists don’t have all the answers. While increasing heat waves are the most clearly observed impact of climate change, natural climate variability is also a factor. For example, she said, “There is some potential evidence that climate change is driving extreme winter cold snaps as well but we still don’t understand to what extent that is happening.” 

She hopes to fill in some of the gaps. “What I hope to do with my research is to inform vulnerable communities about the types of climate risks they will experience and help them understand how societies can better prepare for those.”

Singh earned her bachelor’s degree at Pune University in India, a master’s degree in engineering at Purdue, and a Ph.D. in environmental earth system science at Stanford. She worked as a postdoctoral research fellow for three years at Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory in New York before joining WSU Vancouver in June 2018. Among several awards, she was named the Kavli Frontiers of Science fellow by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 2015.

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