GFDL - Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory

Exploring AMOC’s impact on global and regional climate with Rong Zhang

Rong ZhangOne focus of Zhang’s research is the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) and its impacts on global and regional climate, such as Sahel and Indian summer monsoon rainfall, Atlantic hurricane activities, and Arctic climate. Examples of her research include the development of AMOC fingerprints using satellite data, ocean subsurface temperature data, and climate models, and the prediction of future AMOC changes using the fingerprints. Her recent findings reveal the meridional coherence and propagation of AMOC variations and the intensification of anthropogenically forced AMOC changes at northern high latitudes over the 21st century in density space, with potential implications for designing the AMOC monitor systems.

Zhang’s other research interests include the ocean’s role in modern/paleo climate change and global teleconnections of climate change and low frequency variability in coupled ocean-atmosphere systems.

A GFDL scientist since 2006, she earned degrees from MIT (Ph.D. in 2001), Boston University (M.A. in 1997) and Tsinghua University (B.E. in 1995). In the following interview, Zhang discusses why AMOC research matters.

Why does your research matter?

Changes in the AMOC have a profound impact on global and regional climate system as indicated by paleoclimate records. Understanding the climate impacts of AMOC, the mechanism of AMOC variability, the past AMOC variations indicated by fingerprints, and the latitudinal dependence and propagation of AMOC changes are crucial for our prediction of future climate change, especially abrupt climate change.

What do you enjoy the most about your work?

What I enjoy most is when the results of the experiments we conducted using the GFDL climate models match well with modern and paleo climate observations, so that we can use the simple theory we derived from model results to explain observed climate phenomena. For example, our simulated global synchronization of abrupt climate change induced by changes in the AMOC is consistent with many paleo records around the global, from sediment cores in the ocean to speleothem caves on land. Such modeling results are very useful for the interpretation of paleoclimate observations.

Where do you do most of your work? In a lab? In field studies?

I do most of my work on computers accessible from GFDL. I design experiments to study climate change and variations, and conduct the experiments by running GFDL climate models on supercomputers. I also analyze various observational data on computers to compare with modeling results.

What in your lab could you not live without?

The computing facilities are crucial for our research work. The close collaboration between colleagues in our lab is also indispensable.

If you could invent any instrument to advance your research and cost were no
object, what would it be? Why?

I dream of having a super-fast high performance computer on which a high resolution global coupled climate model can be integrated for a thousand model years within a few weeks of work time. Here the model resolution should be high enough in key locations, capable of resolving major biases in the current generation of climate  models, and the model would include many important chemical interactions in the ocean and atmosphere. With this capability, we can significantly improve our simulation of the modern climate change and variations. Meanwhile I also dream of instruments that provide accurate data of the radiative forcing over the past millennium, so that we can even simulate well the climate variations of the last millennium and compare with various paleo records of the medieval warm period and the little ice age, to test the robustness of the climate model and improve our understanding of climate variations and change.

When did you know you wanted to pursue science?

Early in my childhood, I had strong curiosity and interests in nature. I also admired the achievements of scientists and was moved by the story of Marie Curie. I dreamed of pursuing a career in science when I grew up.

What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore
a career in science?

I would recommend the book “One Two Three . . . Infinity: Facts and Speculations of Science” written by George Gamow, one of the leading physicists of the 20th century. Gamow rephrases complicated scientific principles into a form that is easily understandable. This fascinating book is great at inspiring one?s passion for math and science, and is one of the keys to opening the door for exploring science!

What is your personal favorite book?

Leo Tolstoy’s epic historical novel “War and Peace”. I first read the book in middle school and there are so many unforgettable scenes in it (from painting-like descriptions of historical moments to detailed psychological representation of human characters). Tolstoy did extensive historical research and wrote the great historical events in novel form. Reading this epic is a great way to understand history and human life.

What part of your job as a NOAA scientist did you least expect to be doing?

The effort I spend on reviewing various journal manuscripts and fund-agency proposals as well as serving on scientific panels and committees has become more than I expected. On the other hand, I do value these public service opportunities to contribute to the scientific community at large.

Do you have an outside hobby?

I like to play chess and table tennis. I also like photography and enjoy reading history books and listening to music.

What would you be doing if you had not become a scientist?

I would have liked to study history and archaeology if I had not become a scientist. I am always interested in exploring the ancient world and the history of human societies.

Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?

Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo is best known as an artist, but he made many scientific observations and conduct research in a wide range, from aeronautics and architecture to anatomy, astronomy, botany, optics, geology, hydrodynamics, paleontology, and zoology. He had many creative ideas and was quite ahead of his time. He even designed the world’s first known parachute and proposed the “Great Bird” flying machine.