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  • Earth and Atmospheric Sciences
  • Water
  • Climate
Angeline Pendergrass, assistant professor, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences

Academic focus: Extreme precipitation, Earth’s hydrologic cycle and climate change

Research summary:

I study precipitation and the flow of water and energy through the climate system with which it is associated. My interests include extreme precipitation events that impact people and our environment; the atmospheric processes, circulation, and phenomena that lead to precipitation; and broader variability and changes of Earth’s climate. 

My research is grounded in a top-down approach that considers fundamental questions about precipitation and its change. I develop compact but powerful and useful metrics to describe the characteristics of precipitation to address questions including: What role does precipitation play in the flow of energy through the climate system, and what can we learn about precipitation and its change from this? How have extreme precipitation events changed in the past, how will they change in the future, and what processes drive these changes? How accurately do models simulate the hydrologic cycle, and how can we improve their accuracy? What are the causes and consequences of changes in the hydrologic cycle for circulation of the atmosphere and ocean, climate sensitivity and society?

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

My love of the water manifests not only professionally, but also personally — swimming and kayaking are two of my favorite activities.  Lately (i.e., since March 2020) I’ve also gotten into taking walks around the neighborhood.

What brought you to Cornell CALS?

I came for the people. Everyone I’ve interacted with here has made me think about what I do and about our world in new ways. I love it.

Why did you feel inspired to pursue a career in this field?

My experiences of weather and climate around me conspired with the subjects I liked in high school to get me on this path.  Growing up in Indiana, a few tornadoes hit my neighborhood, which I noticed. Winters were filled with deep snow in the lake effect belt from Lake Michigan. Later we moved to Illinois, upwind of the lake, and winter became stark and blustery and much less snowy.

Physics and math were my favorite subjects in high school, but I wanted to do something tangible with them, and I was drawn to learning more about the weather and climate I’d experienced. I went to college at the University of Miami, where I first started studying the atmosphere. What really sucked me in, though, was watching the puffy (cumulus) clouds grow, float around and drop buckets of rain.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve discovered about Ithaca so far?

The most surprising thing is probably how beautiful the fall colors are. It shouldn’t be surprising — plenty of people told me it would be. But I guess I couldn’t believe it until I saw it myself! The most amazing thing I’ve discovered so far is how clear the water is in Cayuga Lake near Myers Point.

If you had unlimited grant funding, what major problem in your field would you want to solve?

What new extremes of the hydrologic cycle might we encounter over the coming decades and centuries, as our influence — human influence — continues to make its way through the climate system? Ok, this is what I’m already working on, but with unlimited grant funding we could make a lot more progress. I think climate science is a resource-limited field — we could do a lot more if we had an order of magnitude more people and computer time, speed and storage to scale our efforts up. 

One way to scale efforts up would be building climate models specifically focused on precipitation — that capture both the global energy and water cycles and the processes at spatial scales orders of magnitude smaller that are also fundamental to driving precipitation. Some new efforts are heading closer to this direction than most current models are, but I think there’s still room for more focused effort. This would be a hybrid of the climate models we have now, which are focused on capturing the global energy cycle, with weather and Large Eddy Simulation models that get to smaller spatial scales, but don’t include other parts of climate system that are essential for understanding long-term climate change.

Unless the unlimited grant funding also comes with a time machine or a counterfactual planet, it wouldn’t be possible to answer our question without models. But there’s still a lot of uncertainty in our observations of precipitation too, and increasing our understanding would benefit from more observations. One way I would like to see the observing system expand is in terms of the intensity of precipitation that can be measured accurately from space. Right now, we have pretty good measurements of moderate to heavy precipitation events, but not so much at light or very heavy intensities. With more and better observations of precipitation, we could build out our understanding and also improve how well we simulate precipitation, and make better models for what the future might bring. 

Learn more about Angie's work on her profile on the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences website.

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