Youtong Zheng Earns Department of Energy Early Career Award to Study Correlation Between Air Pollution and Storm Strength

New Method of Forecasting Stronger Coastal Storms Under Development

As coastal storms grow larger with greater intensity and frequency, there’s a push to predict them with greater accuracy.

Youtong Zheng
Youtong Zheng, assistant professor with the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, was awarded an $875,000 Early Career Award from the Department of Energy for his work to better understand how pollution impacts coastal storms and to explore more accurate forecasting methods.

Youtong Zheng, assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Houston, knows that understanding the intricate processes driving these storms is essential for better prediction.

“My research focuses on how clouds form and evolve over time and how it affects weather and climate,” said Zheng, who is on the faculty at UH’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. “I’m looking at climate change and how it affects storm formation.”

Zheng was awarded a five-year, $875,000 Early Career Award from the Department of Energy (DOE) to investigate air pollution impacts on coastal storms. He is one of 93 early career scientists to receive the award this year.

Testing the Aerosol Invigoration Effect

A phenomenon known as the aerosol invigoration effect is being hypothesized to cause the rise in stronger storms. Zheng’s project looks to test this hypothesis by using a next-generation climate model that allows scientists to take a closer look at the components of combative storms.

Additionally, Zheng is looking at the changes in coastal storm intensity, including the speed of updrafts in storms, the amount of precipitation produced by the storms, and the depth of the storms.

Kilometer Scale Versus Conventional Climate Models

Zheng is using the Simple Cloud-Resolving E3SM Atmosphere Model (SCREAM). It is one of several new climate models developed by DOE. These models provide enhanced simulations with greater accuracy.

“The model divides the Earth into a series of boxes or grid cells, with each cell covering only a few kilometers. Because the kilometer scale is a smaller scale, it allows us to investigate coastal storms in greater detail, which is something a conventional scale model can’t provide,” said Zheng. “The newer models give us a more in-depth look at atmospheric processes in relation to the size of the storms.”

New Climate Models Require Supercomputers

Because the model Zheng is using requires a large amount of computing power that only a supercomputer can provide, he partnered with researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Zheng will use their supercomputer to process his data.

Zheng will be analyzing data collected during a field campaign in Houston, called Tracking Aerosol Convection interactions ExpeRiment (TRACER), which took place October 2021 through September 2022. TRACER also looked at the possible role aerosols play in storm strength. UH researchers were co-investigators during this campaign.

Greater Accuracy with Forecasting

Zheng’s project will give scientists a better understanding of coastal storms because it will pair air pollution models with sophisticated meteorological models to better simulate the evolving conditions that precede a coastal storm.

“Meteorologists use mathematical models of the atmosphere and ocean to predict weather based on current conditions. However, the models do not consider air pollution as part of the prediction process,” said Zheng.

The result will be more accurate predictions of storm intensity, trajectory and potential impacts.

By improving the accuracy of long-term weather models when forecasting coastal storm strength, Zheng hopes his work will have a lasting impact on emergency storm preparations for communities.

- Chris Guillory, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics