Kerry A. Emanuel

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Primary Section: 16, Geophysics
Membership Type:
Member (elected 2007)


Dr. Kerry Emanuel is the Cecil and Ida Green professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he has been on the faculty since 1981, after spending three years on the faculty of UCLA.   Emanuel’s initial focus was on the dynamics of rain and snow banding in winter storms, but his interests gradually migrated to the meteorology of the tropics and to climate change. His specialty is hurricane physics and he was the first to investigate how long-term climate change might affect hurricane activity, an issue that continues to occupy him today. His interests also include cumulus convection, and advanced methods of sampling the atmosphere in aid of numerical weather prediction. Emanuel is the author or co-author of over 200 peer-reviewed scientific papers, and three books, including Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes, published by Oxford University Press and aimed at a general audience, and What We Know about Climate Change, published by the MIT Press and now entering its third edition. He is a co-director of MIT’s Lorenz Center, a climate think tank devoted to basic, curiosity-driven climate research.

Research Interests

Most of my research focuses on the physics and dynamics of the tropical atmosphere and upper ocean. Among the problems that have interested me is the control of atmospheric water vapor by wet convection in the Tropics; this is crucial to understanding climate as water vapor is the strongest feedback in the climate system. The environmental factors that control the vertical air velocity in convective storms are not well understood; these velocities, in turn, determined how much condensed phase water is lofted and thus how effective convection is in moistening the atmosphere. These factors are simply not accounted for in any form in the current generation of global climate models. The physics of tropical cyclones continue to command my attention, especially as they bear on the response of these storms to changing climate. My research also suggests that global tropical cyclone activity is responsible for much of the turbulent mixing of the upper tropical oceans; this in turn is widely though to be the main driver of the ocean's thermohaline circulation. For this reason, tropical cyclones may play a critical role in climate dynamics.

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