Atmospheric Researcher has her Head in the Clouds

Oct. 3, 2023
Atmospheric Research Screenshot

Sylvia Sullivan is an Assistant Professor in Chemical and Environmental Engineering who performs atmospherically related research and has a joint appointment to the Department of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences. Her academic background is in chemical engineering, but she has picked up atmospheric science and computing skills along the way to model and understand cloud and storm systems. “I really liked environmental work because I felt it was very impactful,” she says.  Her research includes investigating cloud ice formation.

Sylvia Sullivan and Group

From a chemical engineering perspective, you can think about clouds as a control volume, flows in and out and phase changes occurring inside. Along with this more technical view, Sylvia says she “fell in love with clouds because they are very beautiful and poetic”. This blend of fields brought her to the University of Arizona as it is one of the only Universities where Chemical and Environmental Engineering are in the same department. And besides, “Tucson is a wonderful location”.

She is building a research group to study the impact of ice clouds, particularly their energetic and precipitation effects. Sylvia’s group runs very high-resolution simulations called storm resolving simulations, where the meshes are fine enough to represent individual storms. In global climate models, the mesh has a resolution on the order of 100 km, in which several storm cells can form simultaneously. These storm-resolving computations are very expensive and produce terabytes of data, which then need to be post-processed and visualized. Currently,,Sylvia and her group are very focused on working with other visualization experts on campus to illustrate the structures and evolution of clouds and storm systems.

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