Climate Scientist Tackles Global Aerosols and Sunnyvale Sustainability

By: Devin Reese
July 5, 2022
Est. Reading Time: 8 minutes
Atmospheric haze and small cumulus clouds. Credits: NASA/Kristina Pistone
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Kristina Pistone is a research scientist with the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute (BAERI) at NASA Ames Research Center. She studies the Earth’s radiative balance with respect to Arctic sea ice loss and atmospheric smoke particles (aerosols). Pistone got her bachelor’s in physics and Spanish literature from U.C. San Diego, and her master’s and Ph.D. in oceanography from U.C. San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Pistone has served on the Sustainability Commission for her city of Sunnyvale, CA, since 2021. ESAL interviewed her about her current role with BAERI and what motivated her to get involved locally via the commission.

DR: Tell me about your current role with BAERI.

Pistone: As a research scientist, I work largely with NASA data looking at anthropogenic effects on Earth’s albedo. I’ve done work in the Arctic predicting global radiative heating as Arctic sea ice retreats and exposes the darker, absorptive surface beneath. My current work is focused on the effect of aerosols on clouds and climate. Aerosols act as cloud seeds, so the aerosols we humans add to the system can change the properties of clouds. But we start all our papers with “Aerosols are the biggest uncertainty in our understanding of the climate system” because these effects are so complicated.

DR: What makes for the uncertainty?

Pistone: There’re lots of variables with a complex relationship. Smoke particles are gray and absorb sunlight directly, whereas sulfate particles reflect sunlight back to space. Some people talk about fixing climate change by just putting a bunch of aerosols high up in the atmosphere; the natural experiment version of that is a big volcanic eruption. But, to me, that’s just solving Problem A while potentially creating Problem B. I don’t think we know enough about atmospheric chemistry to accurately predict what happens when we pump tons of extra aerosols into the atmosphere for an extended period of time. We’re in Silicon Valley, where there’s a tendency to want to engineer ourselves out of climate change, but, like a fad diet, the seemingly easy, flashy answer isn’t necessarily the best one.

Kristina Pistone.

Kristina Pistone.

DR: Did you know you wanted to help address climate change from the get-go, entering college?

Pistone: Nope. In college I majored in physics “with specialization in astrophysics,” but in the process I took a class on the physical climate system. And it’s just physics applied to the Earth – a certain amount of energy coming in and a certain amount going out – physics applied to a concrete system. But then it’s more complicated to work out how the energy moves between different components of the system (air, ocean, ice, land, plants, and so on). In college I also spent a semester abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I ended up double majoring in Spanish literature, which was fun because I was using two different parts of my brain, for science versus literature, although they’re both analytical in different ways. In literature, what is written is intimately related to the societal-cultural context of the time and place, like whether there was a dictator in power. So, in both cases, you must understand the context to interpret the meaning.

DR: How did you bring your science to the local level?

Pistone: During a Fulbright Fellowship in Santiago, Chile, I looked at air quality trends in the Santiago Basin. Everything gets stuck there, especially in winter when there’s a low inversion (just like in Los Angeles). When the sky looks hazy, sometimes it’s just low clouds, but sometimes the air is full of aerosols, which block sunlight and cause poor air quality. In Santiago, we analyzed the government air quality data and one of the things we found was that more data quality control was required to make the data fully serviceable. It was a very clear example of how the people collecting data (data techs employed at the air quality monitoring stations) were disconnected from the people who were doing the analysis. So this kind of thing leads to difficulties in the translation of data to results, and results to policy or public understanding.

DR: How did your work evolve from that point?

Pistone: My professional work has diverged a bit from specifically focusing on air quality, but it’s certainly related to what I’m doing now. I think that work combined with my other research makes me well-positioned to make some connections that maybe aren’t usually made. What I like to do is figure out how things that seem distinct are related at a system level. And that’s what climate change work is about, because it fundamentally connects so many different systems. For example, my graduate student research focused on aerosols over the Indian Ocean, using data from unmanned aerial vehicles. And for my postdoc, which led to my current position, I did a similar analysis but from a much bigger plane as part of the five-year ORACLES study that evaluated the effects of smoke aerosol particles off the coast of southern Africa. It so happens that there is a similar system, with a uniform deck of clouds influenced by aerosols, off the coast of Chile. So, the systems can be better understood through their similar characteristics.

DR: So, you’ve worked on aerosols from the local level, in the Santiago Basin, to a more global level, in the Indian Ocean. Does the work you do now for BAERI have local implications?

Pistone: Yes, although because I’m a soft money researcher, my research depends somewhat on what grants are available and what gets funded. If left to my own devices, I’d like to do more local-level, applications-driven research. I’ve always been interested in sustainability; I was the weird kid at college who brought my Nalgene to the dining hall to get smoothies instead of the disposable plastic cups. At some point I realized I could save hundreds of single-use cups, but without systemic change, what’s the point? We can’t really “fact” our way out of much of the stuff we’re facing. My brother just graduated from law school and there was just one speaker who mentioned anything alluding to climate change. Yet, climate ties into everything. It doesn’t mean there aren’t other critical issues we have to deal with like racial justice, but we must do it all at once, and intersectionally, because none of these issues are happening in siloes (as scientists we might say it is not a linear system). And my weird combination of backgrounds has allowed me to take a step back and see how these disparate pieces fit together. So, short answer, right now I work on sustainability on the side.

DR: Tell me more.

Pistone: In 2021, I applied to be on my city’s Sustainability Commission and got the spot. Like many people in, and leading up to, 2020, I had been feeling that the world was a dumpster fire and the pandemic gave me a lot of time to think about what I could do that would meaningfully address climate change. I read a book All We Can Save consisting of the writings of 60 female climate movement activists, scientists, writers, and poets. It, plus the wonderful reading circle I had for discussions (shoutout to them), helped me to get past being paralyzed by inaction because these problems are so global and huge. But there are ways to direct our energies into something with meaningful local impact. We shouldn’t just do science in a vacuum because then what’s the point? We need to take what we know scientifically and hopefully translate it into actions by people who have the power to make change.

DR: What is your role on the Sustainability Commission?

Pistone: We’re advising the city on various sustainability initiatives, and that’s been an interesting learning experience. They welcomed my Ph.D. background, but one thing I struggle with a lot is the contrast between the optimal actions that would get us to where we need to be, versus the implementable actions given the often very flawed systems we have. We can’t just throw everything out and start over again.

As part of the progressive Bay Area, Sunnyvale already has a Climate Action Playbook (CAP) that explains the overall goals and moves needed to achieve them, like switching all cars to electric, getting rid of gas household appliances, and reducing food waste. It’s a 30-year plan but right now we are trying to envision the most important actions over the next five years that will get us to the long-term goals. But this has to be within the bounds of the finite resources and powers that the city has. For example, it would be great for multiple reasons if all school buses were electric, but that’s something the district controls, not the city. But there are also different avenues to pursue actions on certain issues – there’s the CAP, but there are also study issues, speaker events, and other opportunities staff might know about from the state or federal level. I’m finding sometimes you have to try multiple strategies to see which gains the most traction for a particular issue.

DR: Have you submitted any study issues?

Pistone: Yes, I submitted one about leaf blowers, which are terrible for air quality, soil quality, noise pollution, and operator health. Basically an ecological nightmare to just inefficiently move leaves around. California is banning the sale of gas-powered leaf blowers in a couple of years, which is great, but I proposed that we need to look at things more holistically. The gas-powered ban partially solves the issue of emissions, but in other ways the electric leaf blowers aren’t much better. They’re not exactly quiet, and they’re still blowing away topsoil which is why everyone complains about how useless the soil is around here.

We saw, as an example, when the City of Palo Alto banned gas-powered blowers, people just got electric ones and powered them with diesel generators. This is a common theme in many environmental issues: an outright ban will not get us to where we need to be. So in this case, I proposed we study what landscaping practices are more sustainable (mulching leaves over blowing and removing, as one example) and how and whether we could incentivize landscapers and property owners to move towards that model. I think the questions should be how we can make the best environmental choice the default option for everyone. With more climate-suitable, sustainable landscapes, we wouldn’t need leaf blowers, and would achieve other co-benefits.

DR: What would you say to other scientists trying to effect sustainability?

Pistone: There’s a Venn diagram from the How to Save a Planet podcast that I find useful. The center is the nexus between what work needs doing, what you’re good at, and what brings you joy. And that’s different for everybody. I’m less confident talking to huge groups, for example. I like to be the fun aunt of science education, swooping in to share cool science. I’m enjoying working on the Sustainability Commission, including planning this year’s sustainability speaker series. I am particularly interested in exploring how we can adapt to live in this world with the amount of warming that we’re already committed to. We should prepare ourselves for what’s already coming and figure out what it means for all the things we care about, such as our communities’ responses to sea level rise, heat waves, fires, and drought. I think the adaptation question does not get enough consideration, and it’s extremely important that this be done in an equitable way so that the communities already least able to respond to the changing climate and acute disasters aren’t the most impacted (as we’ve seen with Covid and so many other issues).

Also, if I ruled the world, which I won’t because I’m a scientist, not a wizard, I’d want “science” be the fallback major for “I don’t really know what I want to do but I want a degree,” so that more people in non-science jobs would have baseline science literacy. That’s the dream!

Learn more about Pistone’s work in this YouTube video.

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Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) is a non-advocacy, non-political organization. The information in this post is for general informational purposes and does not imply an endorsement by ESAL for any political candidates, businesses, or organizations mentioned herein.
Published: 07/5/22
Updated: 08/2/22
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