Sandia LabNews

Atmospheric scientist uses statistical approaches to study climate impacts

Diana Bull in Alaska
FOCUS ON CLIMATE — Diana Bull examines a coastal permafrost bluff along the North Slope of Alaska. (Photo by Jennifer Frederick)

Diana Bull, a researcher in Sandia’s atmospheric sciences group, is not afraid to try new things. Her research has taken her from private industry pursuing ocean wave energy research, to research at the University of Pennsylvania, to exploring innovative ideas supporting climate security at Sandia. Though her applied research background is diverse, Diana has remained steadfast in her passion for climate.

She began her career at Sandia 10 years ago while working on ocean wave energy conversion research. Six years ago, she began focusing her research on changes in the Arctic and Arctic security, examining Arctic coastal erosion. “From there my work began to move to more of a strategic position working in the Strategic Futures and Policy Analysis group. It was there that I started to think about the Arctic and climate change from a strategic position, endeavoring to really understand where impact could be made,” Diana said.

“Climate change touches just about every single aspect of life, and so finding the aspect that is important to any person is possible.”
—Sandia climate scientist Diana Bull

In 2021, Diana, along with peers across the national laboratories, launched the CLDERA, or CLimate impact: Determining Etiology thRough pAthways, project to develop new statistical approaches to attribute climate impacts to and from their sources. The novel analytic tools will be demonstrated on simulations and observations of the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines — the 20th century’s second-largest volcanic eruption — with the goal of elucidating the dominant connective relationships between that event and its climate impacts. These relationships will serve as crucial constraints helping to cull the possibilities in attribution. These tools could go on to inform new climate agreements, for instance, by tying climate impacts back to their causes and establishing the needed systems for detection and attribution of future impacts.

Diana received a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College with a focus on physics, math and chemistry. She obtained a master’s degree from Cornell University in physics.

Read Diana’s interview to better understand how her work addresses climate security awareness, climate intervention and adaptations driven by the changing climate, as well as her approach to educating others about climate change.

Why are you passionate about climate change?

I’ve always loved nature, and I was a tree-hugger when I was a kid. One of my favorite shirts that I still have from when I was 12 is a “Save the Whales” T-shirt. I grew up camping. I grew up in the mountains. I have always been inspired by the diversity and complexity of natures’ solutions to specific challenges, which has engendered a real passion to preserve it. Anthropogenically driven changes are too fast for natural adaptation and truly threaten flora and fauna.

What does “climate security” mean to you?

I adhere to a much broader definition of security; it’s not just about borders and military force. For me security is about human security, it’s about biodiversity security, it’s about natural resource security. So, when I think about climate security, I think about all of the things that allow different aspects of nature to survive and to thrive.

What climate-related challenge are you most excited to work on?

The thing that I am most excited about in climate right now is trying to deepen the understanding of the connective relationships that result in changes to expected climate behavior. The climate is incredibly complex and nonlinear, and to understand how an outcome arises may be intractable, but it is exactly the task a team and I have taken on.

We recently launched a new project at Sandia called CLDERA, which is named after the Valles Caldera National Preserve here in New Mexico, the site where a volcano erupted more than 1 million years ago because the exemplar in the project is the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. Working with a cross-disciplinary team, we are focused on developing novel tools to elucidate connective relationships between the eruption and its impacts in both simulations and observational data. We believe identifying and representing these relationships will enable scientific attribution of a variety of impacts to the eruption. This new set of methods and tools offers a framework that can be translated to other exemplars like wildfires, the disappearance of Arctic sea ice or changes to the currents in the Atlantic Ocean, like Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation.

Another extension of these tools is to use them to understand climate interventions, like stratospheric aerosol injections, specifically designed to cool the planet. As identified in a recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report, an outstanding and critical research topic to be addressed for governance and equity around climate intervention techniques is the attribution of specific climate outcomes back to the stratospheric aerosol injection event.

What does the nation or world look like in the future if we are successful in addressing climate change?

Climate change will cause a myriad of impacts that will require technical innovations to address, and so there are rich opportunities in front of us, as bizarre as that may seem. The need to understand and proactively or retroactively adapt to these impacts also opens the landscape into thinking about equity and justice in ways that perhaps we previously wouldn’t have thought about. So, by addressing climate change there is a real opportunity to ensure that diverse communities are incorporated in meaningful ways and see technical innovation in areas where it previously wasn’t seen. In an ideal world, we could envision a bright and inclusive future.

However, on the darker side, climate change is going to result in a lot of loss and that’s going to be very difficult to deal with. As areas become uninhabitable, with the coupled loss of people’s heritage and biodiversity, we will be faced with mass migration and strained resources. We should expect societies to be under significant strain, and this will temper any visions of an ideal future.

If you were trying to recruit somebody to work on the problem of climate change at Sandia, what would you say to them?

Sandia is one of the few places that has depth of capability and breadth of expertise that allows you to draw upon needed areas and then specialize it to things and problems that exist in climate change. When you think about modeling and simulation, high-reliability engineering, detection and attribution, and risk analysis, you see expertise at Sandia that can be reoriented to address problems in climate. Sandia has also been able to work with policymakers to develop scientific solutions and risk analyses that ensure delivered products have well-quantified operational envelopes and controls to account for uncertainties. It is one of the few places that runs the gamut from deep expertise to policy integration in really large-scale programs.

I have also found passion and excitement around the climate crisis at Sandia. The people I work with are inspiring for many reasons, and I learn so much through transdisciplinary pursuits here. If I continue to ask questions, I will never become bored and there will always be someone here — often in an unexpected group — to work toward answers with.

How can we educate and involve more people in addressing the climate crisis?

I think you have to engage people where their passion lies. Climate change touches just about every single aspect of life, and so finding the aspect that is important to any person is possible. Their interest is the open door to talk about the changing climate and widening the aperture to aspects they may not know about. Unfortunately, climate and climate change have become politicized issues, and that’s partly because it can touch every aspect of people’s lives. So, in educating people, I think the best thing you can do is make sure you have sound facts, make sure you have a narrative that will appeal to them but also accept that it may not always work.

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