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Meet Nina Oakley, Ph.D.

  • Published in Featured Researchers

Nina Oakley, Ph. D., is an assistant research professor in the Division of Atmospheric Sciences at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Reno, NV, and a regional climatologist with the Western Regional Climate Center (WRCC). Nina specializes in the study of atmospheric conditions that lead to extreme landscape events such as debris flows, landslides, flooding, and avalanches. She is originally from California, and holds doctoral and master’s degrees in atmospheric science from the University of Nevada, Reno, a degree in secondary science education from the University of Hawaii, Manoa, and bachelor’s degrees in geography and Spanish from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has been a member of the DRI community since 2011, when she moved to Reno to begin her graduate program. In her free time, Nina enjoys surfing, stand-up paddleboarding, snowboarding, mountain biking, and cooking.

DRI: What do you do here at DRI?

NO: Most of my work is in applied research, meaning that I look at the challenges that various groups might have and try to use weather and climate science to solve problems. For example, for my dissertation, I studied extreme precipitation and its relation to post-fire debris flows, shallow landslides, and water resources in California. We looked at the characteristics of the storms that cause post-fire debris flows in Southern California to see if there were some common features among them that would help people forecast these events.

DRI: What exactly is a post-fire debris flow, and why do we need to forecast them?

NO: Following a wildfire, soil properties can change, making them more water-repellant, and the landscape is denuded of vegetation that might otherwise absorb rainfall. When high intensity rainfall occurs in burned areas located in steep terrain, the fast-moving runoff can scour soil, ash, rocks, and other debris from channels and move it downstream.

When that happens in areas where people live, it can be really hazardous. There was a devastating post-fire debris flow this winter in Montecito, California that killed 23 people and damaged hundreds of houses. So, trying to understand how we can better forecast these, and how can we communicate the hazard to people is really important. In Southern California there’s a lot of development on alluvial fans, exposing a large population to post-fire debris flow impacts. In Nevada we don’t see as much development on alluvial fans yet, but as our population grows, we do want to be thoughtful about where we build.

Nina Soberanes dryravelNina Oakley examines conditions following the Soberanes Fire in Northern California, which occurred during summer and early fall of 2016.

DRI: Prior to returning to school to study atmospheric science, you were a middle school science teacher. Why did you decide to make this shift in career direction?

NO: I taught for several years in Hawaii, and then I moved to Santa Cruz and taught for a year there. During the International Panel on Climate Change summit in Copenhagen, my students were really interested and asking me lots of questions. I wanted to be able to talk to my class about climate change, and I just didn’t feel like I had the background to do that. I had always been interested in meteorology. I grew up surfing in southern CA, and weather is a big factor in the quality of the surf. I was always following the weather really closely, but I was scared of the math and science. I realized that I really wanted to understand and be able to explain and sort through all of the overwhelming and conflicting information on the topic of climate change, so that motivated me to go back to school.

I really enjoy working with the application of the meteorology to various problems, and the opportunity to learn about other people’s problems and how they relate to meteorology. I’d like to do more outreach and find more opportunities to work with K-12 students and teachers in the future. If you access a teacher, you hit the top of the tree and can reach multiple years of students. So I think it would be great to work with teachers who are interested in science and are in the same predicament that I was in, where they want to know more but need somebody to help them understand and sort through all of the information that is out there.

DRI: What are some of the unanswered questions in your field that you would like to study in the future?

NO: Right now, I am working on research proposals to further study post-fire debris flows in California. I am also working with an organization in southern California to use climate projections to help prioritize climate change adaptation strategies related to water management. Additionally, I am starting a project in the Russian River Basin with the Forecast Informed Reservoir Operations project where we will examine high intensity rainfall within atmospheric rivers.

I’m really intrigued by these post-fire debris flows. I would like to continue to study these across the California-Nevada area, to understand the characteristics of storms that trigger them. It would be great to have lots of instruments to make measurements during these events. In many areas of Nevada we don’t yet know what the triggering thresholds are -- how much rain we need, and in what amount of time. There are models that predict that, but it would be great to have more observations to validate the models. It would also be great to dig into post-fire debris flows in a changing climate, and how the frequency of short duration, high intensity precipitation might change in the future.

Nina Farad3Nina Oakley examines a burned area in Farad, California, where fire burned along the I-80 corridor in July 2017.

For more information about Nina and her research, please visit: