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Kapnick, Sarah

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Young award winner continues tradition of climate science

by Caroline Mosley (NOAA Research Communications)

“Part of why I love being a scientist is that it is a creative outlet,” Sarah Kapnick, Ph.D., explains, “Most people don’t think about it that way, but the whole point of science is to explore new ideas and think through complex problems.”

As a physical research scientist in the climate change, variability and predictions group at NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL), Kapnick uses her creative outlook on science to combine high-resolution models with field measurements to better understand how mountain snow impacts climate. For providing critical new insights into the sensitivity of high-elevation cryospheric processes on climate change, Kapnick will be honored with the 2015 American Geophysical Union Cryosphere Early Career Award.

Snowfall declines projected by a climate model due to increased greenhouse gases.

Snowfall declines projected by a climate model due to increased greenhouse gases.

Feburary 2013 Credit: GFDL

This award is given to a scientist within ten years of his/her doctorate who has made significant contributions to study of the cryosphere and will be announced at the American Geophysical Union meeting in December 2015. Kapnick’s award coincides with GFDL celebrating sixty years of climate science research in October 2015.

The cryosphere is the frozen water part of the Earth system, and Kapnick defines her research as “everything in the climate that applies to water.” Observations from satellites and meteorological stations provide the groundwork in terms of precipitation, temperature, snowfall, and run-off. But the rest is up to Kapnick to use applied mathematics and models to most accurately measure the total amount of snow on mountain tops every year.

One of Kapnick’s projects examines how one part of the cryosphere, mountain snow, impacts drought in the western United States. Mountain snowpack, or the accumulation of snow in mountain regions, is a critical part of the annual water budget for the western United States.

Using high resolution models, researchers can see sharp elevation changes (left) and more annual snowfall (right) in the Karakoram mountains compared with nearby regions.

Using high resolution models, researchers can see sharp elevation changes (left) and more annual snowfall (right) in the Karakoram mountains compared with nearby regions.

(http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v7/n11/full/ngeo2269.html) Credit: Kapnick

In the spring, snowpack in the mountains ranges, such as the Sierra Nevada, melts and runs off the mountains into lakes and reservoirs, determining the amount available for agriculture and human use. As of September 2015, nearly 46 percent of California is experiencing extreme drought and some areas are missing up to two year’s worth of rain. Kapnick uses models and observations to better understand how snow high up in the mountains could potentially influence lowland drought.

One of the exciting outcomes of Kapnick’s work is projecting the amount of winter precipitation in the coming decades to better inform water managers and policy makers how to plan for future water supply and infrastructure. For example, current modelling by Kapnick and her colleagues shows a decline in total snowfall across the United States by the end of the century.

High resolution models, like the ones Kapnick uses, more accurately measure snowpack on high mountain peaks without climbing the mountain itself. These models account for variability in mountain heights, using grids of 50 instead of 200 square kilometers, to look at sudden changes in elevation. Higher peaks can have different amounts of snowpack than lower peaks, and these discrepancies can lead to over- or underestimations of the amount of snowpack available to the lowlands.

Kapnick moderates a small group discussion for a Princeton Women in Geoscience Event

Kapnick moderates a small group discussion for a Princeton Women in Geoscience Event

November 2013 Credit: Kapnick

These models can be used on a global scale. Kapnick and her colleagues used high resolution models to better understand the impact of climate change on glaciers in the Karakoram mountain range in the Himalayas. By using models that more accurately account for drastic changes in elevation, Kapnick and her colleagues determined that the Karakoram glaciers have remained stable and even increased in mass while many glaciers nearby and worldwide have receded during the past 150 years. This finding is critical to those living in densely populated regions in China, Pakistan and India that use these glaciers as a main source of freshwater.

Besides pursuing her research interests, Kapnick takes a lead role in mentoring early career scientists, especially women. Kapnick was a co-founder of Princeton Women in Geosciences (PWiGS), a Princeton University organization that seeks to create a support system for women geoscientists through peer networking, mentoring, and the promotion of work-life balance. In 2015, she began a similar mentoring program at GFDL to encourage the networking of researchers with different backgrounds.

“As a scientist, I do my work because I am curious about the world, not because I expect recognition,” said Kapnick, “It is nice to be honored for my hard work and motivates me to continue my research.”

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