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Photo of Karen McKinnon in front of UCLA buildings blurred in the background. Assistant Professor of Statistics and the Environment Karen McKinnon

Creating a new model for heat wave trends

Assistant Professor of Statistics and the Environment Karen McKinnon earned the National Science Foundation’s CAREER award for her work studying the trends in the intensity of extreme heat events.

Rita Aksenfeld | April 15, 2024

Key takeaways:

  • Climate change causes extreme heat events like heat waves to happen more often and get more intense over time. 
  • UCLA Professor Karen McKinnon combines statistics and climate science to learn about how trends in heat waves might differ from trends in average summer temperatures.
  • With her recent NSF CAREER award for this work, McKinnon plans to increase collaboration between statisticians and climate scientists to solve problems humanity faces due to climate change.

As Los Angeles residents prepare for summer, the question on many of their minds is how to escape the heat. Heat waves have become increasingly frequent and intense in recent years due to climate change, and are predicted to get worse as average global temperatures rise. City planners and community advocates are already thinking about how to mitigate some of the worst effects through temporary measures and changing policies affecting long-term infrastructure design. 

For their efforts to have the longest-lasting and most future-proof impact possible, they need accurate predictions about the intensity of future heat waves. This is where UCLA Professor of Statistics and the Environment Karen McKinnon comes in. McKinnon, who recently won an NSF CAREER award for her work, combines expertise from statistics and climate science to create models that predict how extreme future heat waves will be so that city planners can know “if average summer temperatures increase by 1 degree Celsius, will the most extreme temperatures warm by the same amount – or could they warm even faster?”

The behavior of extreme heat events like heat waves is difficult to model because, by definition, these events are rare. This rarity means that there are only temperature, humidity, and similar readings from a few extreme days each year rather than the plentiful data from common events like daily temperature highs. Therefore, scientists have much less information to create models about these extreme events compared to general trends like average temperature. McKinnon studies “how those summertime temperature extremes are changing compared to average summertime temperatures in both observations and in a range of climate model simulations.” This comparison allows her to create models that accurately predict the intensity of future heat waves over the next decades using the limited historical data from these – until recently – rare events.

With her NSF CAREER award, McKinnon will conduct further interdisciplinary research into this important topic, as well as create a regular workshop modeled after hackathons and a workshop she ran last summer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder Colorado. The goal of this program will be to promote collaboration between climate scientists and statisticians to address important problems caused by climate change. As McKinnon shares, “this will bring together people who have a climate science background and people who have a statistics background and have them focus on topics related to climate extremes, because those topics immediately raise so many integrated climate and statistics questions.”

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