The National Science Foundation has named Elizabeth Barnes, assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric Science, a recipient of its Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award.

Barnes will apply causal discovery techniques, a unique type of statistical and data analysis, to the question of causal connections between the Arctic and mid-latitude circulation. These tools will provide insight into the causal pathways connecting loss of sea ice and accelerated warming of the Arctic to midlatitude weather patterns. The project will also examine the ability of state-of-the-art climate models to simulate these pathways, and will assess how these pathways may change in the coming decades.

“I’m excited to apply these statistical techniques to address longstanding questions of causality in climate science,” Barnes noted. “I’m specifically going to be studying the links between the tropics-midlatitudes-Arctic and how they communicate with each other – and who communicates first.”

In addition to this research, Barnes’ CAREER award will support efforts to educate the broader community about data analysis tools and techniques by designing and implementing an online resource for atmospheric scientists to learn theory, see field-specific examples, and share software. Barnes says that “the recent explosion of climate data and increasing complexity of earth-system models requires that now, more than ever, atmospheric scientists be equipped with the necessary skills to make novel and robust discoveries.”


Barnes and her group are also interested in developing forecasting capabilities to bridge the traditional weather (daily) and seasonal (3+ month) forecast timescales, known as the “subseasonal-to-seasonal (S2S) prediction gap.” Community resilience in the face of weather and climate extremes would be significantly enhanced through the ability to forecast extreme events (e.g., floods, droughts, heatwaves, and convective severe weather) at lead times of weeks to months. Former graduate researcher Dr. Bryan Mundhenk, working with Barnes, postdoc Dr. Cory Baggett, and atmospheric science professor Eric Maloney, recently reported a breakthrough in S2S prediction by demonstrating skillful prediction of the behaviors of atmospheric rivers up to five weeks in advance.

As the cluster of storms and rainfall (green areas) known as the Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO) travel around the tropics, they kick off planetary-scale waves in the mid-latitude atmosphere. Depending on the phase (location) of the MJO, the waves can alternately block or steer the flow of atmospheric rivers (“AR”) around various high and low pressure systems and toward either the Gulf of Alaska or the U.S. West Coast. NOAA animation, by Cordelia Norris.

Figure: Madden-Julian Oscillation and mid-latitude impacts

Atmospheric rivers are intense plumes of water vapor that cause extreme precipitation. They are responsible for more than half the annual rainfall in the western U.S., but can also cause damaging floods.

Barnes serves as lead of a national task force on S2S prediction , comprised of scientists from universities, research laboratories, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) centers and laboratories. The task force collaborates and coordinates with ongoing national and international S2S prediction, research, and applications efforts to accelerate progress in this area critical to national security and resilience.

Rivers of tropical moisture flowed from the western Pacific to California from January 15 – January 31, 2016. This animation is based on satellite-based estimates of “total precipitable water,” which is the amount of liquid water available in the atmosphere to fall as rain or snow. NOAA animation by Dan Pisut, NOAA Environmental Visualization Lab, based on data provided by the University of Wisconsin/SSEC MIMIC.


Barnes earned a doctorate in atmospheric science from the University of Washington and held a NOAA Climate and Global Change Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York before joining the faculty of the Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering. Barnes is internationally recognized for her groundbreaking research, including the prestigious James R. Holton Junior Scientist Award from the Atmospheric Sciences Section of the American Geophysical Union.

Barnes is currently Task Force Lead for the NOAA MAPP Subseasonal-to-Seasonal (S2) Prediction Task Force and serves as a member of the International Commission on Dynamical Meteorology a Commission of the IAMAS and the U.S. CLIVAR Working Group Arctic Change and Possible Influence on Mid-latitude Climate and Weather. Barnes and her research group focus on a variety of topics related to large-scale atmospheric variability, using data from observations as well as models of varying complexity. She credits her great research group and set of collaborators with her ability to be part of these exciting advancements.

Elizabeth Barnes, Department of Atomospheric Science, Colorado State University
Elizabeth Barnes

“Who caused who? Or, which came first, the chicken or the egg? I’m specifically going to be studying the links between the tropics-midlatitudes-Arctic and how they communicate with each other and who communicates first.”

Elizabeth Barnes

For more information:

Elizabeth Barnes
Assistant Professor, Department of Atmospheric Science

Department of Atmospheric Science

Barnes Research Group

Make the connection

Return period of very dangerous heat waves in 2076-2095 from the CMIP5 models.
Return period of very dangerous heat waves in 2076-2095 from the CMIP5 models.

A small percent of all heat waves are catastrophic to human health, causing hundreds to thousands of excess deaths. Future changes in the frequency of this type of very dangerous heat wave have important implications for community preparedness and national security. 

CSU researchers G. Brooke Anderson, Colin Eason, and Elizabeth A. Barnes have developed the futureheatwaves package to enable users to identify, characterize, and explore multi-day extreme events in climate model output. The team is using this methodology to determine the range of future projections of very dangerous heat waves and their impacts on mortality.