Prof. Ding Ma

Ding Ma, Assistant Professor of Atmospheric and Environmental Science, Duke Kunshan University

Professor Ding Ma has a background in climate science, having earned his PhD from Harvard University and completed a post-doctoral fellowship at Columbia University. Two years ago, he joined DKU as an Assistant Professor of Atmospheric and Environmental Science, where he is affiliated of the Environmental Research Center.

Now, please join is on an exciting journey as Professor Ding Ma shares his unique perspective on atmospheric science and his fascinating observations that go beyond research data.

Interleaving Physics and Data

Understanding the behavior of the atmosphere is one of the most challenging tasks in science, requiring an immense amount of data, numerous rounds of simulation, and a well-coordinated fleet of computing resources.

According to Prof Ma, modern atmospheric science lies at the intersection of physics and data science. He emphasized the growing importance of data, as climate research has become an increasingly data-driven subject which benefits from the abundant observational data from satellites and other sources. Climate scientists are also incorporating machine learning techniques into their research to better understand a multitude of climate model outputs. However, Prof Ma pointed out that atmospheric science is still rooted in physics. While data processing is crucial, researchers are primarily concerned with understanding the underlying physics and dynamical mechanisms governing atmospheric processes.

Prof Ma is at the forefront of studying convection, which is closely related to cloud dynamics and, in some cases, precipitation. Exploring this frontier requires sophisticated minds, as the dynamic of the air parcels is a highly chaotic and nonlinear process. Currently, researchers are still trying to solve the problem of turbulence and develop a closure theory, a problem that has plagued mathematicians and physicists for over a century. The solution may lie in recent advancements in technology, particularly in computing resources, which have provided scientists with unprecedented power to conduct numerical simulations of the atmosphere. Supercomputers can solve fluid equations to identify patterns and approach a general solution to the turbulence closure.

Chasing Typhoons

Although Prof Ma mainly works on data analysis and numerical modeling, he shared a maritime story of his field work over the western Pacific Ocean.

A few years ago, Prof Ma spent one month on a research vessel, sailing all the way into the remote ocean and making observations of the vertical profile of the air and water. He sought to understand the interaction between the tropical cyclone and ocean circulation.  When a tropical cyclone passes the ocean, it generates turbulence underneath the sea, like stirring coffee with a spoon. To understand the physical process, the scientists and crew chased typhoons, launching balloons into the atmosphere, and throwing sensors into the ocean.

He enjoyed it very much for the first week. “It is so exciting. Can you imagine that? In a blink, you’re over the tropical ocean, entirely different world from what you are used to.” But the repetitive nature of work on the tiny ship with only 30 scientists began to take its toll on him. Prof Ma was taking a night shift from 4:00pm to 4:00am, launching weather balloons into the atmosphere and tracking the observations, nonstop. He started feeling anxious. He was about to submit his first job application – there are five openings this year, and for each single faculty job opening, there are more than a hundred applicants – it is a brutal job market.

The clouds and sunset reshaped his mindset. The day before the application was due, he launched another balloon into the sunset, and he asked himself “is it worth my time?” While the sun’s warm glow eventually faded into darkness, time slowed down and he was absorbed in the beautiful scene of tranquility. He had his life-changing eureka moment, which helped him shift from a result-oriented mindset to a process-oriented one – live in the present.

Sci-Fi dream

When asked about a climate scientist’s imagination on science fiction, Prof Ma went into a quite unexpected trajectory.

He emphasized the importance of data in atmospheric science, noting that research progress in this field is often limited by the availability of observations. Prior to the era of satellites, there were very limited observations of the atmosphere and the ocean, leading to a lack of understanding. Satellites have greatly improved our understanding of Earth’s atmosphere, but our knowledge of other planets is still limited.

“If you have watched the movie Wandering Earth, I guess you remember the picture of Jupiter with the Great Red Spot, right? We barely have any observations for the Jupiter, and we barely understand what’s going on with the great red spot. We only know it’s a big storm. Can you imagine that this storm lasts for centuries, and it’s as big as the entire Pacific Ocean? It’s amazing.” In Prof Ma’s Sci-Fi dream he would love to visit the giant planet and launch balloons into Jupiter’s atmosphere, and of course, watch sunset from Jupiter. “I wish I could sail to Jupiter and dump sensors into the great red spot and do measurements, observations by myself to better understand what’s going on with the planet.”

A sustainable future

Prof Ma has a keen interest in understanding the physical basis of global warming. He’s trying to address what happens with the atmospheric circulation and the physical aspects of how the the extreme weather would respond to climate change. At DKU, he is branching into the social dimensions of global warming, as he believes that there is a gap between understanding the physical basis of climate change and its societal implications.

He also shared a little story of his take on this perspective. Half of China was baked by an unprecedented head wave last summer, and there was one whole month with scorching heat above 40℃ in Suzhou where Prof Ma lives. As a climate scientist, he knew the numbers well, but he wasn’t ready for the consequences. To be specific, local crops were devastated by the heat wave, including a specific type of corn that his two-year-old daughter loved. The baby cried for the local corn over the summer, which led Prof Ma to the question “what does global warming mean to the individuals?”

Over the past decades, significant progress has been made understanding the physical basis of global warming. Climate models predicts there will probably be a 2℃ warming by the end of this century, and the models also simulate weather extremes. In the models, they are nothing but numbers, and the following question is, how we can translate these numbers into real impacts to human society and the ecological system.

As an example, Prof Ma talked about one of his ongoing research projects with DKU students on how global warming affects people’s mental health. They approach this question using social media. Twitter and Weibo posts were scraped, and by using the timestamps and locations, these posts are linked to climate records, like temperature and precipitation. Using machine learning techniques, they seek to evaluate the response of individuals’ happiness to climate change.

Prof Ma is very excited about the opportunity to enter this field. “This is a brand-new area. Societal impacts (of climate change) will be the next big question for us. And this is essential for a sustainable future.” He also shared his thoughts on the numbers and beyond. “In my climate model, I see extreme precipitation, maybe 30 cm per day. These disasters are just numbers in the model. I feel nothing about it as it’s too far away from our daily life. But when we are reading the posts of real people on social media, I can feel them, I can relate to them.

Interviewer & writer: Liansai Dong