A photo of flood waters caused by Tropical Storm Erin in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, in August 2007.

Extreme rainfall projected to get more severe, frequent with warming

A photo of flood waters caused by Tropical Storm Erin in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, in August 2007.

Flood waters caused by Tropical Storm Erin in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, in August 2007. (Photo Credit: Marvin Nauman/FEMA)

Across the continental United States, massive, often-devastating precipitation events — the kind that climate scientists have long called “hundred-year storms” — could become three times more likely and 20% more severe by 2079, UCLA-led research projects.

That’s what would happen in a scenario in which greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a rapid rate — what the paper calls a high-warming scenario. Extreme rainfall events, the so-called hundred-year storms, would then be likely to occur once every 33 years.

The paper, published in the American Geophysical Union journal Earth’s Future, finds that warming has a more profound effect on both the severity and frequency of extreme precipitation events than it does on common precipitation events.

The findings have serious implications for how we prepare for the future, UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain said.

“The five-year flood, the 10-year flood — those aren’t the ones that cause huge amounts of damage and societal disruption,” said Swain, who is also a fellow with the Nature Conservancy. “That comes when you get 50- or 100-year floods, the low-probability but high-consequence kinds of events.”

For example, the occurrence of historic rainfall events such as the one that caused California’s Great Flood of 1862 or Houston’s flooding from Hurricane Harvey in 2017 is increasing much faster than that of lower-magnitude events that happen every decade or so.

The paper predicts extreme precipitation increases for the entire continental United States, but some areas are expected to see bigger relative increases than others, including the West Coast and the hurricane-prone Southeast.

The paper also delves into the consequences of those extreme rainfall events: the increases in the number of floods and the number of people who would be exposed to them.

Combining climate, water physics and population models, the paper also projects that, in a high-warming scenario, the increases in extreme precipitation alone would put up to 12 million additional people at risk of exposure to damage and destruction from catastrophic flooding —  29.5% more people than face that risk today.

The paper also made projections using other scenarios that combine the effects of warming and projected population growth. For example, high warming juxtaposed with high population growth would increase the number of people exposed to risk of so-called 100-year floods by around 50 million in the continental U.S.

And even in the absence of climate change — at least some of which is unavoidable over the next 30 years — medium or large population growth would expose an additional 20 million or 34 million, respectively, to such floods, highlighting the importance of demographic factors in driving the growing risk.

Combining the factors would compound the changes in some regions that have so far been outside of flood zones and are sparsely populated because, thanks to climate change and population growth, those areas are likely to be within flood plains and have higher population density in the future. That “hot spot effect” could put up to 5.5 million more people at risk of devastating floods than warming or population growth alone would.

“There’s a huge difference between best- and worst-case scenarios,” Swain said. “People’s exposure to flooding in a warming climate is definitely going to increase. It could increase by a somewhat manageable amount or by a truly massive amount, and that depends both on the climate trajectory we take and on the demographics of the U.S.”

Previously, projections for extreme precipitation events relied on limited historical records that go back only 100 years. For the new study, the researchers used a modeling technique to create multiple plausible pasts and futures, essentially increasing the amount of available data by 40 times over what was available from history alone.

“We don’t just have one 100-year event we can pull from the historical record; we have lots of really severe, rare events we can pull out to give us a better sense of how they’re likely to change,” said Swain, who is a member of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

Importantly, the authors write, the risk of flooding in the U.S. will increase significantly over the next 30 years, even with moderate warming — meaning a temperature increase of 1.5 to 2.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 to 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) globally. That would expose more than 20 million additional people to a 100-year flood within the next 30 years, they projected.

Even the term “100-year flood” is probably already something of a misnomer, Swain said. With global temperatures already having increased by about 1.2 degrees Celsius (about 2.1 degrees Fahrenheit) over the past century, the term is fast becoming outdated.

James Done, a co-author of the paper and a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said further work is required to understand exactly why extreme events are increasing more rapidly than less extreme ones.

“It’s not just because of a shift in the distribution of the flooding,” Done said. “There’s something else that’s reshaping the most extreme of the very dangerous rainfall events.”

The precipitation changes predicted are already beginning, he added. And the nation’s infrastructure — from flood control channels to concrete-heavy urban design that drains slowly — were not designed for the scenarios that now seem likely to occur.

This article, written by David Colgan, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

UCLA political scientists: Political polarization is not as simple as it appears

A photo of an electoral map.

Electoral Map (Photo Credit: Clay Banks/Unsplash)

As President-elect Joseph Biden prepares to take office amid an era of intense partisanship, UCLA political scientists encourage people to adopt a different perspective on the country’s politically polarized landscape.

Lynn Vavreck, UCLA’s Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics and Public Policy, told the audience gathered for a “U Heard it Here” event on Nov. 17, that the emergence of more extreme differences among the public should not solely be attributed to the rise of social media or point-of-view-based cable news, which popularly get a lot of blame.

She and others who have been tracking voter attitudes for decades consistently find that voters tend toward confirmation bias.

“What people don’t understand about American politics is that voters always filter out information that is inconsistent with their prior views,” Vavreck said.

One thing that is definitely driving polarization is the behavior of elite politicians and the growth over the last two decades of more sophisticated and extremely well-funded campaigns.

These increasingly efficient campaign machines allow politicians to be more obstinate about compromise, even though large groups of voters in both parties might support an issue — like background checks on people who want to buy firearms or a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, Vavreck said. Both of those things have broad support in both parties, but to differing levels of priority, she noted.

“You have two ways you can go; you can hold out or you can compromise,” she said. “If you compromise you might get some of what you want now, but if you hold out you can see if the power flips and then get everything you want.”

Efrén Pérez, professor of political science and director of the UCLA Race, Ethnicity and Politics Lab who also spoke on the panel, agreed.

“It’s important to contrast what is available for public consumption versus what we know as social scientists,” he said. “A lot of the divisiveness is really among the elites in the parties. There is an enormous sea of individuals for whom politics is kind of a colorful sideshow, they only sporadically interact with it.”

The resistance to compromise is with the power brokers in each party and depolarizing is about showing and convincing those same people that there is broad-scale agreement on some issues, he said. Biden might be able to use his long experience to find common ground on how to respond to the pandemic and heal the economy, something that will affect voters regardless of party preference.

Panelists, which also included UCLA political science professors Erin Hartman and Daniel Thompson, also talked about identity politics at play in 2020, how the pandemic and social justice affected campaign messaging, voter turnout, vote-by-mail and how pollsters fared this time around.

– It’s clear we need better polling of people of color to understand intersecting identities and priorities, Hartman said.

– We have to consider the multiple identities in the voting populace, beyond race, such as “occupational identities,” Pérez said. This likely came into play for Mexican-Americans in Texas border towns who responded to Trump’s law and order messaging because they or family members hold jobs in border patrol or law enforcement.

– Pollsters were right about a lot of things, like Georgia and Arizona being competitive and the way vote-by-mail would shake out by party.

– There were some interesting split votes that bear further consideration, Thompson said. Florida went for Trump, but voters there approved a $15 minimum wage, which was considered too far left for Hillary Clinton to endorse four years ago.

– The pandemic and the havoc it wreaked on the economy changed the Trump message, Vavreck said. Gross domestic product in the first six months of 2020 was dismal, hitting a post-New Deal low. But the stimulus checks meant household income was high, which helped turn out voters for Trump.

– Democrats leaned heavily into the message of social inequality, rising to the challenge of summer protests, and building on decades of effort to position the party as a broad home for voters of color, Pérez said.

This article, written by Jessica Wolf and Melissa Abraham, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom

Chemical biologist receives award for development of imaging technology

Ellen Sletten, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UCLA, has been selected as one of four recipients of the 2020 International Chemical Biology Society Young Chemical Biologist Award. The award is given annually to young scientists across the globe who have made significant research and service contributions to chemical biology.

A photo of Ellen Sletten.

Ellen Sletten (Photo Credit: UCLA)

Sletten is being recognized for her development of fluorophore technology that allows for multicolor, real-time imaging in mice, facilitating the translation of optical chemical tools to mammals. She is the first UCLA faculty member to receive the award since its inception in 2013. Sletten received her award and gave a lecture on “Multicolor, High Resolution, Non-invasive Imaging in Mice” during a special “Rising Stars” session at the ICBS 2020 Virtual Conference.

A UCLA faculty member since 2015, Sletten is the John McTague Career Development Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry. She is a 2019 ACS Polymeric Materials: Science and Engineering Young Investigator, 2018 Sloan Research Fellow, UCLA Hellman Fellow and NIH Director’s New Innovator.

Sletten’s research group takes a mutidisciplinary approach to the development of molecules, methods and materials to detect and perform chemistries in vivo, ultimately enabling next-generation therapeutics and diagnostics. To learn more about Sletten’s research, visit the Sletten Group website.

This article, written by Stuart Wolpert, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom

A photo of Rong Fu, Karen Sears and Graciela Gelmini.

Three professors named 2020 fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

A photo of Rong Fu, Karen Sears and Graciela Gelmini.

From left: Rong Fu, Karen Sears and Graciela Gelmini were named fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. (Courtesy of Karen Sears, Rong Fu and Graciela Gelmini)

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, which is the world’s largest scientific society, named three UCLA College faculty members as 2020 fellows. Since 1874, the AAAS, which publishes the journal Science, has chosen members for their distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications.

UCLA College’s new fellows are:

Rong Fu, professor and vice chair of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, conducts research on the role of the atmospheric hydrological cycle and its interaction with Earth’s surface in determining the stability of the Earth’s climate at global and regional scales, and applying climate science to support regional decision-making. Her research has focused on topics including the mechanisms that control the rainfall variability over Amazonian and Pan-American monsoon regions and various factors that influence rainfall variability in the recent past and will influence rainfall and droughts in the future. She is being honored for “seminal contributions to the understanding of rainfall and ecosystem interactions, and the scientific application for improving societal drought preparedness at regional scale.”

Graciela Gelmini, professor of physics and astronomy, conducts research on astro-particle physics, especially dark matter. The vast majority of the matter in the universe is dark matter, which so far has been observed only through its gravitational interaction. What dark matter consists of remains one of the most important open questions in physics, astrophysics and cosmology. She is a theoretical physicist who has extensively studied dark matter candidates, as well as the physics of neutrinos. She is being honored for her outstanding contributions “to our understanding of dark matter and the universe.”

Karen Sears, professor and chair of the ecology and evolutionary biology department, harnesses the diversity in mammals to study how evolution works. Her research explores the developmental rules that shape evolution and provide insights into human health. She is being honored for distinguished contributions to biology, “particularly the developmental mechanisms driving morphologic diversification in mammals.”

A total of to 489 scholars were selected as fellows this year. They will be honored Feb. 13, 2021, at a virtual Fellows Forum.

For the full article, written by Stuart Wolpert, please visit the UCLA Newsroom

A photo of Andrea Ghez receiving her Nobel Prize citation and medal.

Andrea Ghez delivers Nobel Lecture, receives Nobel medal

A photo of Andrea Ghez receiving her Nobel Prize citation and medal.

Ghez received her Nobel Prize citation and medal on Dec. 9 in Beverly Hills. (Photo Credit: Annette Buhl)

Editor’s note: This news release was updated Dec. 10 with a new headline and photographs covering the presentation of the Nobel medal. The video of her medal ceremony was added Dec. 11.

“How do you observe something you can’t see?”

Andrea Ghez, who in October won the 2020 Nobel Prize in physics, answers that question and many others in her Nobel Lecture.

Ghez, UCLA’s Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Professor of Astrophysics and director of the UCLA Galactic Center Group, shared the prize for her discovery of a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, where the distorting effects of the Earth’s atmosphere made it difficult to see much of anything.

In the talk, Ghez discusses the research she conducted at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, which houses the world’s largest telescopes. She also recounts a huge leap forward she made in the 1990s, when she helped to pioneer adaptive optics, a powerful technology that corrects the distorting effects of the Earth’s atmosphere in real time.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ghez delivered her lecture in a mostly empty Lani Hall at UCLA. (Photo Credit: UCLA Broadcast Studio/Nobel Prize Outreach)

And she shares the story of how her initial proposal to conduct the research that led to the Nobel Prize was turned down. “People didn’t think it would work,” she recalled. Ghez wrote another proposal to better explain that it would work.

Her lecture, titled “From the Possibility to the Certainty of a Supermassive Black Hole,” was delivered in UCLA’s Lani Hall. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the auditorium was mostly empty at the time. Traditionally, Nobel laureates travel to Stockholm — or Oslo, Norway, in the case of the Peace Prize — to receive their awards. This year, because of the pandemic, their medals are being brought to them.

Ghez received her Nobel diploma and medal Dec. 9 in the backyard of Leichtman and Levine’s home in Beverly Hills. Today, she will participate in a “Nobel Minds” discussion that will stream live on the organization’s website at 12:35 p.m. PST, and she will be interviewed about her research for a Nobel Prize podcast.

Andrea Ghez with Lars-Erik Tindre, representing the Swedish embassy in Washington, D.C., at the presentation of Ghez’s Nobel medal in Beverly Hills on Dec. 9. (Photo Credit: Annette Buhl)

Ghez and fellow Nobel laureate Jennifer Doudna, a UC Berkeley professor of biochemistry, were joined by UCLA Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Emily Carter for a webinar on Dec. 16 at 9 a.m. PST. They discussed the science behind their Nobel-winning discoveries, their current research and the significance of their Nobel Prizes for women and young aspiring scientists.

You can view the webinar on the UCLA Connections website.

Doudna shared the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry for her role in the development of CRISPR-Cas9, a powerful genome editing breakthrough that allows scientists to rewrite DNA in any organism, including human cells.

This article, written by Stuart Wolpert, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom

A photo of Kamala Harris.

Election of Kamala Harris invites Americans to consider identity

A photo of Kamala Harris.

Kamala Harris (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore)

Kamala Harris, only the second multiracial person and first woman to take office as vice president, is a groundbreaker, already seen as an example for young women and people of color all across the United States.

Harris’ achievement signals a distinctive cultural moment for everyone to interrogate and emphasize the historically different practices and structures of assigning race, paternity, heritage and identity, said Natalie Masuoka, chair of UCLA’s department of Asian American Studies. Harris, who is the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant father and an Indian immigrant mother, represents an American demographic that has long desired fulsome representation in American politics.

“In terms of long-term impact, I hope this opens opportunities for women leaders,” Masuoka said. “The other long-term effect is seeing the power of voters of color. It is an important reflection of how the demographics of the Democratic coalition are recognized by the party. Voters of color are core supporters of the Democratic party and Harris’s position as vice president shows how critical it is that they be represented in party leadership. It will be interesting to what extent her diverse background can be seen in the different efforts she chooses to engage in as vice president.”

Masuoka is the author of “Multiracial Identity and Racial Politics in the United States,” in which she explores the rise of Americans who self-identify as mixed race or multiracial and the impact on politics. Her book was recognized as the best book in political behavior by the Race, Ethnicity and Politics Section of the American Political Science Association.

A change in the way the census tracked race in the year 2000 was a flash point, Masuoka said. There was a push by many activists and families to create a “mixed race” or “multiracial” option on the census form. Other civil rights groups disagreed with this option, arguing that collecting specific race data was critical to understand demographics and allocate resources.

The result was something of a compromise. Starting in 2000, individuals could select more than one category to indicate their racial identity on the census. More than 7 million of them did.

“Racial identification on the census is an issue about representation,” Masuoka said. “Because if you’re not counted then you effectively don’t exist. My book posits that with this administrative change in the federal government, it created a culture of us thinking about race as a product of identity, because it is about how you think of yourself, rather than how others classify you.”

Most of the structures around race in America were historically built to protect the power of whiteness, and still function that way, she said. The long-held “one-drop rule” professed that an American was considered Black if they had even one drop of Black heritage in their blood and paternity.

“There is a tendency to frame multiracialism as this 21st-century, new cultural trend of increased interracial intimacy,” Masuoka said. “But what I argue in my book is that we’ve had racial intermixing throughout the entirety of the U.S. and global history. What has been distinctive of American culture is this structure that whites are a really protected, pristine group. What 2000 changed is that it reintroduced this idea that there is racial mixing all the time. It’s a cultural change in the way that we understand race, but it’s not necessarily a marker of increased interracial intimacy.”

It’s a distinction that Masuoka tries hard to help students think about in particular.

“What they are living through is really different than what their parents lived through,” she said. “We lived in a very different culture.”

For many Americans those long held structures affect how they are even able to self-identify.

“While we want to celebrate the idea that race is an identity, there are still a lot of things out there that make race a constraining or imposed condition,” Masuoka said.

A photo of Natalia Masuoka's book cover.

Oxford University Press

Former President Barack Obama acknowledged his interracial parents, but didn’t identify as biracial, but as a Black man, Masuoka pointed out. Obama often talked about the fact that while he had a white mother, he knew that anyone watching him try to hail a cab would simply see a Black man.

“I don’t want to challenge her inclusion Asian America, but Harris self-identifies as a Black woman, she has been clear about this in a similar way to Obama,” Masuoka said. “Like Obama, she is very proud of her mother and talks about the influences of her South Asian heritage, but Harris’s very progressive mother also recognized early on that her daughter was going to be treated as a Black woman by society at large.”

One of the problematic things about how race is socially constructed are the ways in which our norms and privileges associated with race, and particularly whiteness, are replicated over and over in every kind of historical cohort.

“It does seem to very effortlessly get re-mapped regardless of how our culture changes,” Masuoka said.

With Harris as vice president of the United States, her multiracial identity and that of other Americans will likely be part of the ongoing dialogue and distinct challenges of the new administration.

All of this represents a daunting unlearning for a culture that has prioritized whiteness for more than two centuries and one that relentlessly hews towards old patterns.

Masuoka points out that now is the moment when we need to create a more positive dialogue as the entire nation looks toward the future.

“Multiracial identification encourages us to think about how complex racial identity can be for many Americans,” she said. “This opens opportunities to have constructive conversations about how race impacts individual life chances.”

This article, written by Jessica Wolf, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom