Atmospheric Modeling Expertise with an Urban Engineering Focus

Yang Zhang

Professor Yang Zhang joined Northeastern University’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in 2020 as a Distinguished Fellow. Focused on atmospheric/climate modeling and air quality forecasting, Zhang brings years of leadership in this important field to a growing and diverse range of environmental engineering expertise within the department.

Her work is crucial. Globally, the importance of air quality to all aspects of life, from public health to the economy is clear. Her research has revealed an estimated $1 billion a year shortfall in US perennial crop yields due to ozone pollution and has estimated over 63,000 saved lives and over $500 billion saved costs through reducing surface fine particle levels by a few ug m-3. A 2020 paper published in the journal Nature Climate Change by Zhang and collaborators identified how policy changes towards pollutants in China could save upwards of 13,000 lives a year. The ability of engineers and scientists to understand the atmosphere has immediate public health and economic importance.

Understanding, monitoring, and forecasting air quality require complex tools and massive computing power. Over her career, Zhang has served at the forefront of the endeavor to understand our atmosphere and has contributed to the development of many of the now essential techniques and modeling practices used frequently within the field. In 2017 she was commissioned by the UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to develop a training book documenting these and other techniques: Training Materials and Best Practices for Chemical Weather/Air Quality Forecasting. It was published in late 2020. As a member of the WMO’s Global Air Quality Forecasting and Information System Initiative (GAFIS), Zhang is co-leading WMO’s effort in capacity building for air quality forecasting and information systems that include skill training, scientific advancement, and transformation of research to operations.

Our Air is Both Global and Personal

With the book published, Zhang is looking to further move our understanding of atmospheric chemistry and air quality. From her Clean Air, Smart City, And Digital Earth (CASCADE) Lab on Northeastern’s Boston campus, she is charting the next frontier of air quality monitoring and forecasting at hyperlocal scales such as at home, in buildings, and on streets. Traditionally, air quality monitoring and modeling are done at the regional and urban scale or larger, explains Zhang, but she envisions a new transdisciplinary system in which we develop the tools to monitor the quality of the air we breathe at critical points throughout a city. “Air quality can vary greatly even over relatively small distances,” says Zhang. “The quality of air on the sidewalk outside a building can be quite different from that measured at a window a few stories above.” Such a surveillance system could help policymakers design cleaner cities and help public health officials better understand the effects of exposure to polluted air on long-term health outcomes at hyperlocal scales. Her plans pair well with the department’s focus on Urban Engineering, whereby legacy approaches to civil and environmental engineering are enhanced by new strategies and solutions for larger-scale urban growth, renewal, health, resilience, and sustainability.

Professor Zhang also serves as the department’s Associate Chair for Research. In this role, she is looking to expand the interdisciplinary nature of research within the department, as well as creating new avenues for both faculty and students to take advantage of research opportunities. Already, she has launched new initiatives to further this goal. Her Lunch & Learn Seminar Series brings together faculty, researchers, students, and private industry for a bi-monthly meeting to discuss specific research topics and innovation, and to increase dialogue between fields. She has spearheaded a new Convergence Acceleration Research and Education (CARE) Scholarship to promote convergence research within CEE and beyond and has helped establish a new College-wide fellowship program, the Undergraduate Program for Leaders In Future Transformation (UPLIFT), both of which are aimed at increasing research opportunities for undergraduate students.

Related Faculty: Yang Zhang

Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering