When It Rains, It Pours. Why?

Atmospheric scientist Michela Biasutti investigates what drives rainfall on a wide variety of time scales, and how climate change may affect it. She is passing on the basics to students.

Vanessa Lincoln
September 21, 2023

Michela Biasutti, a researcher at the Columbia Climate School’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, focuses on the variability of rain across across many time scales across the world, the workings of monsoons, and the influence of climate change. She recently joined the Environmental Science and Policy program at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs as a climatology professor. Biasutti introduces students to the workings of the atmosphere and the oceans, their complex interactions, and how they collectively and individually affect climate. Biasutti recently discussed her professional experience and research interests, and gave some career advice. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A woman in red and black stands in front of a tree
Photo: Elisheva Gavra

Could you tell me a little bit about your research?
I’m interested especially in how frequent or intense rainfall is, what determines the timing of the monsoons, when rain arrives to a certain place and when it retreats. Of course, I am also interested in climate change. What’s going to happen in a warmer world? Where do we see more robust changes in frequency and in intensity, and why? We’re finding some interesting results in terms of distinguishing between what happens in the core of very rainy regions as opposed to more marginal places where the rainy season might be shorter and more variable. This might have some implication for how you deal with the expected changes in rainfall, if we can trust the models that make these projections.

I have also worked on understanding the source of drought in the ’70s and ’80s in the Sahel region of Africa. I specifically looked into understanding how much of it was due to the fact that the industrialized countries were emitting a lot of sulfate aerosols. When you burn fossil fuels, you don’t only get CO2 out of it, you also get particulate matter. What was the effect of this pollution on the drought in Africa?

If I’m lucky and some of our submitted proposals are funded, then I want to also learn more about the climate of the much deeper past.

 What sparked your curiosity about weather and precipitation? How did you first become interested in climate?
I started out studying physics, but when I got to the end of my degree studying elementary particles, I realized that to make progress on that research front, especially as a young investigator, I would have to be part of these huge collaborative groups where each person works on something very small. I was already interested in the environment and in doing something that would have some practical application. I happened to meet the right people who steered me towards climate work, where there was still room for large contributions by small groups.

Once you start, it’s a very fascinating subject. At that time, in the mid-90s, we kind of thought the Kyoto Protocol was on its way, and it felt like we were just about ready to put a check mark on climate change—that it was going to get solved. So the question was more: “Now that we can predict El Niño, we can really try to have predictability at annual time scales, or maybe decadal time scales. What do we know about natural variability?” Instead, climate change became this crisis that is kind of sucking the air out of the room of most other research. It is so important to be part of the solution. But it wasn’t the original motivation.

Do you have any thoughts about how to communicate the science behind climate change to skeptics?
In my own personal experience, information alone is not going to convince everyone. I think what’s important at this point is to say, “We can build a better future, all of us, by doing the right things.” We can build jobs that are competitive on a global scale, we can build the wind turbines and solar panels. We can reinvest in our infrastructure. I was invited recently to a conversation at the Italian consulate with the Italian minister for environment and energy security. That is a right-wing government that is dragging their feet. But even in that conversation, I got a sense that the stated reasons to be slow on action were, “We don’t want to hurt the economy,”’ rather than “The science is not solid.” I got the sense that the discussion has shifted.

Tell me about your teaching.
Lamont professors don’t typically teach, since most of our time is spent on research, but in the last few years I’ve started teaching in the M.A. in Climate and Society program. Before that I taught for one year in the M.S. in Sustainability Science program. In a way, I’m going through all the masters programs associated with the Climate School that address the intersection between inquiries such as “What is the natural system? How do we adapt to it? How do we limit the damage we do?” They’re very similar programs at their cores.

Do you have any personal or professional advice for current, past, or future students?
This may sound very obvious, but build a network. It is what will bring you the necessary knowledge for a problem that is all about complex systems where no one person can know everything you need to know. We need to be in this for the long run, so find ways to not lose faith. I often go back to read works about the American civil rights movement and how they kept going. You have to do it not because you expect to win that battle that year. This is how I want to be in the world, and how I want to lead, as much as I can. I’m going to try to find joy in the practice. For me, it can be just the wonder of the natural world. As much as I’m worried about the climate, I’m also still very much fascinated by it, and there’s a sense of discovery that will still bring you joy. The learning and the connections are the most important things for me.

Vanessa Lincoln is an associate with the Environmental Science and Policy program, and an alumna.