I remember walking down the beach on a vacation in Florida as it started thunderstorming in the distance. I had just learned in school that you could figure out the distance to the storm by counting the number of seconds between a lightning flash and thunder, and either multiplying or dividing that number by a certain factor. Much to the chagrin of my family, the exact equation* escaped me at the time. It was during that big storm, and many subsequent storms, that I became fascinated by extreme weather and its impacts on the world. I later realized this passion could actually become a career!
I grew up in St. Louis Park, Minnesota and went to Princeton University for my undergraduate work. All through high school and the beginning of college I thought I wanted to be a math major, mostly because I figured that people who liked math studied that subject. During my freshman year, I took a class on environmental issues and discovered all the environmental issues people with a math and science background work on. Based on my experiences in that class and a memorable conversation with the professor, I decided to pursue an advanced degree in environmental science and natural disasters.
A young Dalia poses in a space suit at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Dalia Kirschbaum.
During my graduate work at Columbia University, I focused on methods of utilizing satellite data to decipher and model natural hazards and their impacts on Earth. I was specifically interested in figuring out how we can use satellite data about rainfall, topography, and land cover to approximate where and when disasters may happen around the world. I narrowed in on landslide hazards (often a general term for mudslides, rockfalls, debris flows, etc.). Despite being pretty small events compared to enormous size of hurricanes, landslides can cause massive amounts of damage and result in thousands of fatalities each year. In developing countries, the impacts of landslides are often even more extreme because a combination of factors, including steep slopes, poor building practices, precarious road construction, and lots of rainfall. Together, these factors contribute to frequent landslides with the potential to harm large populations.
I never really wanted to be an astronaut (though I did like the ice cream I tried on a visit to Kennedy Space Center in elementary school) but did like that satellites that orbit way above the Earth’s surface can tell us new and exciting things about our planet. Now at NASA, my research uses this satellite data to estimate where and when rainfall may trigger landslides across the globe. My math and science background has helped me to understand the processes occurring on Earth’s surface, while my research in the mechanisms of natural disasters has helped me better understand and communicate the impact these events have on people. My ultimate research goal is to be able to provide a warning system so people all over the world can understand where and when landslides are likely to happen in their area and be able to respond to protect their communities.
*To figure out the number of miles to a storm, divide the number of seconds between a lightning flash and thunder by 5.
Post by Dalia Kirschbaum
Learn more about Dalia in this video interview