'Clothesline' shock leads to meteorology career

Updated: 2014-01-26 07:22

By Liu Zhihua(China Daily)

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Meng Zhiyong, a meteorologist at Peking University, recently added one more honor to her list of achievements.

The 44-year-old was awarded a China Young Women in Science Fellowship in December 2013. The award is to honor excellent women scientists in the country, as part of the For Women in Science program to highlight the important contributions made by women to scientific progress, started by L'Oreal and UNESCO in 1998.

"I was very honored when I was told that I was one of the 10 winners of the award," Meng says.

"It is recognition of my work from the science community and the government."

Meng enrolled in Peking University in 1987 to study Meteorology, obtained her doctorate degree from Texas A&M University in 2007 and did postdoctoral research there for one year.

She then returned to China in 2008 to work at Peking University under the One Hundred Talents Program, a university plan to attract elite researchers working overseas.

Her research interests focus on the dynamics and predictability of severe convective systems, tropical cyclones, ensemble-based data assimilation and numerical weather prediction, which uses mathematical models of the atmosphere and oceans to predict the weather based on current conditions.

In 2012, she confirmed the occurrence of a tornado in Beijing during a heavy rainfall event through detailed damage surveys and radar analyses.

On July 21, 2012, a catastrophic rainfall hit Beijing, leaving 79 people dead and causing widespread damage to buildings, infrastructure and crops.

Data from the Beijing Meteorological Bureau later showed that the 24-hour precipitation in urban areas was as high as 190.5 millimeters. Rainfall reached 460 mm in the hardest-hit suburbs.

Although the meteorological bureau had predicted the rainfall, the starting time it predicted was about six hours later than the actual time, and it also failed to correctly estimate the rainfall magnitude.

Meteorological authorities invited Meng to a discussion on the event, since she is an expert in the field.

It was mentioned at the meeting that there might have been a tornado during the storm but there wasn't enough evidence to confirm this.

That was when Meng determined to make it clear whether it was a tornado or not.

"A tornado had never been documented in Beijing before. I was very curious about what on earth caused the severe wind damage that killed two people in the Tongzhou district," Meng says.

"I did a couple of storm chases in the United States and was fascinated with tornadoes."

Photos showed trees seeming to fall in different directions. Witnesses also claimed to have seen funnel clouds.

Meng visited the storm-struck suburb in Tongzhou district with her students to gather evidence.

They found that the damaged area was narrow and long, and trees actually fell toward each other in quite a few places, which is strong evidence of a tornado.

It became the first tornado ever documented in Beijing.

Meng credits her achievements to her curiosity about nature, which was first raised by a potentially fatal accident when she was 7.

In 1976, shortly after the major earthquake in Tangshan, Hebei province, Meng accidentally picked up a "clothesline" from the ground, only to get an electronic shock.

A relative rescued her. It turned out the "clothesline" was an electrical wire.

"I was very curious as to why something like a clothesline had such great power to knock me down," Meng says.

"I became fascinated with science and followed my interests to become who I am now."

At the China Young Women in Science Fellowships award ceremony, China Association for Science and Technology executive vice-president Shen Weichen said the percentage of women working at high academic levels is very low, although an ever-increasing number of women, particularly young women, are committing themselves to science and achieving impressive results.

He hopes there will be more women scientists.

"I think the key is life-work balance," says Meng, who has a happy family of three.

"It is not like an all or nothing choice. We can achieve whatever we want - but only if we want to."


'Clothesline' shock leads to meteorology career

Meng Zhiyong is one of the 10 winners of 2013 the China Young Women in Science Fellowship. Wang Jing / China Daily

(China Daily 01/26/2014 page4)