Shih-Chieh Kao—geography as destiny

Feb 24, 2016

[Third in a series of articles about Climate Change Science Institute (CCSI) researchers designed to better acquaint you with them—both professionally and personally.]

Shih-Chieh Kao

It has often been said that “biology is destiny” or “anatomy is destiny.” Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said “character is destiny.” But when it comes to climatology and climate scientists, geography may well be destiny.

CCSI scientist Shih-Chieh Kao, team leader of the Hydrologic Systems Analysis Team in the Environmental Science Division, is a good example of this. Kao was born and raised on Taiwan, an island nation in the extreme western Pacific. The eastern two-thirds of Taiwan are very mountainous, and only about 20% of the land is “usable.” Not only is it subject to three or four hurricanes per year, but because it is situated in a complex seismic zone, it is also subject to earthquakes.

All of this makes for some very interesting hydrologic features, says Kao, and while it didn’t predetermine a career in hydrology, it certainly made him interested in hydrology-related issues.

After obtaining undergraduate and master’s degrees in civil engineering, specializing in hydraulics, from the National Taiwan University, in 2004 he came to the United States to pursue a PhD in civil engineering, again specializing in hydraulic and hydrologic engineering. His research focused on analysis of extreme hydrologic events such as extremes of rainfall or drought. Through analysis of extreme events and their frequency, he hoped to improve water management. His dissertation, “Multivariate Statistical Analysis of Indiana Hydrologic Data,” received the 2008 Purdue Civil Engineering Best Dissertation Award.

Kao says that at this point, like a lot of young engineers, he wasn’t really familiar with Oak Ridge National Laboratory. (They don’t call Oak Ridge the “secret city” for nothing.) However, his advisor, through contacts at ORNL, knew there was a position for a postdoctoral research associate to analyze climate change information, for which he applied and was accepted.

The project was his first experience with research related to climate, and it left him feeling “a little horrified,” he says. Analyzing the frequency of extreme weather events simulated by climate models, he realized that under this climate trajectory, those extreme events would become more intense and more frequent in the future—“a horrifying experience.”

True to his scientific roots, he says that the next questions that occurred to him were “Is this really true, or is this just some anomaly associated with this particular climate model? Is this really going to happen?”

And that set the tone for much of his later climate-related research.

If the climate data he was seeing were indeed accurate, he says, “We needed to start thinking about extreme events in new ways.” For example, the design standard used in the past to ensure reliability and durability of infrastructure features such as bridges, dams, levees, and roads might no longer be sufficient under changing climate and land use/land cover (LULC) scenarios. Kao was able to address this in a recent ORNL Laboratory Directed Research and Development project in which his team developed a new modeling framework to evaluate the potential impacts of extreme events and changes in LULC on critical energy-water infrastructures.

Connections and intersections

Kao is interested in what he calls “intersections”; for example, how climate change may affect hydropower or hydroelectric energy in the future. While hydropower might not seem to be a big contributor to the US energy portfolio—currently hydropower only provides 6% of the energy in the United States—it has an important role to play, he says. It’s very cheap in terms of operation, it provides peak energy in addition to the base load, and it can provide ancillary services. So understanding how climate extremes may affect the energy infrastructure is of great importance.

And once again, Kao has been able to address this concern through his research.

The Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River Basin provides electricity generation as well as irrigation water.

Currently Kao is the principal investigator for the National Hydropower Asset Assessment Program (NHAAP), which ORNL runs for the DOE Water Power Program. As part of NHAAP, ORNL hosts and maintains the national hydropower database for DOE and also collects a comprehensive set of observation data to support analysis of hydropower trends in the United States. “Because this is an energy lab, I’ve been very fortunate in getting involved in doing this type of work,” he says. “Scientists here have the opportunity to directly work on ‘national-scale questions,’ and the research outcomes may directly inform national policy. This makes working here a very unique experience that you don’t typically have in other venues.”

The high-performance computing resources available at ORNL are another plus, according to Kao. And he has been able to access them—as if they were personal devices—to speed up some of the computationally intense simulations required in his hydrometeorological work.

Philosophy and inspiration

Kao says his driving philosophy is “honesty”: honesty in research; honesty in dealings with others; and at the core, honesty with himself.” Being honest and true to one’s self, he believes, can be challenging.

Following closely on honesty, and perhaps not unexpected, is respect for others, in all its various forms: respect for others as fellow human beings, respect for their time, respect for their contributions, being polite.

Kao says that he is inspired by multiple colleagues and senior staff members at ORNL. A keen observer of human nature, he says that people have different styles in different circumstances and at different times, and so he takes inspiration from different colleagues depending on his circumstances and what he is working on.

Having so many experts gathered in one place makes for a very exciting environment, he says. The diversity of styles, experiences, skills, and knowledge sets facilitates observing different aspects of scientific problems—something not so easily done in smaller research environments.

But pluses can sometimes be double-edged swords. Kao says there are so many different opportunities at ORNL, it can sometimes be distracting, which makes time management particularly challenging.

What you might not know

What you might not know about Kao is that he is, like so many of us, “addicted to the Internet,” which he uses to talk to friends and stream news.

Like many of us, Kao says he is known by various aliases in his different personas: “typically ORNL climate people call me Kao, hydropower people call me Shih-Chieh, while my Taiwanese friends call me Melvin,” and of course, there is “daddy.” These and other names have special meaning for many Taiwanese. To find out more about this interesting custom, go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_name#Taiwan or http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2009/04/the_names_du_xiao_hua_but_call_me_steve.html.

Kao’s work has been published in high impact journals such as the Journal of Hydrology, Water Resources Research, and the Journal of Geophysical Research. For more about his research and recent publications, please visit his website.

By Vj Ewing