NIU has named Meteorology Professor Walker Ashley, who has attracted international attention with his investigations into extreme weather and societal impacts, as a 2021 Presidential Research, Scholarship and Artistry Professor.
The award is NIU’s top recognition for outstanding research or artistry. It has been given out annually since 1982 in recognition and support of NIU’s research and artistic mission. Award winners receive special financial support of their research for four years, after which they carry the title of Distinguished Research Professor.
Tornadoes, hail, lightning, fog, hurricanes, snowstorms. Professor Ashley’s pioneering exploration of human vulnerability in the face of weather-related dangers and disasters has informed the public and emergency management services alike—and likely saved lives.
“Simply put, no one has done more to advance our understanding of the risk to life and property over the breadth of thunderstorm hazards than he has,” said Harold Brooks, a senior research scientist at the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory.
Ashley and his team use a wide array of research techniques—from survey-based approaches, to remote sensing and geographic information systems, to the use of machine learning and high-performance computing.
His groundbreaking studies have gained widespread attention among scholars, with over 2,800 literature citations, and in hundreds of popular media outlets, including the New York Times, NPR, USA Today, the Washington Post, the Weather Channel and the Chicago Tribune.
Among his many important findings:
- Most tornado fatalities occur in the southeastern United States, whereas the Great Plains have a relatively low fatality rate despite a very high risk.
- Nighttime tornadoes are more than twice as deadly as daytime tornadoes.
- Weak-framed and manufactured housing is a primary contributor to tornado vulnerability and impacts.
- Suburban sprawl has increased the potential for severe weather-related disasters.
- Growth in the human-built environment will be more influential than climate change in driving future tornado and severe storm disasters.
- The weather-related vision hazards of fog, smoke and dust storms can be equally or even more deadly than tornadoes, floods and hurricanes.
- Expansive thunderstorm complexes known as mesoscale convective systems have a greater impact on rainfall and severe weather than once thought.
- American winters late this century could experience significant decreases in snowstorm frequency, intensity and size.
“The overarching goal of his research has been to supply essential information and analyses on weather hazards to the operational forecasting and emergency management communities, policy and decision makers, and the public with the aim of reducing weather impacts on humans and their possessions,” says Wei Luo, acting chair of NIU’s Department of Geographic and Atmospheric Sciences, which houses the meteorology program.
Ashley’s work has attracted $1.4 million in external funding, including grants from the National Science Foundation. And the American Meteorological Society (AMS) has twice honored Ashley, most recently with its Roberts Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Sciences “for extraordinary, interdisciplinary contributions to the scientific intersection of extreme weather and societal vulnerability.”
Additionally, Ashley’s stellar teaching led to his designation as an NIU Presidential Teaching Professor in 2018. In all, Ashley has published more than 50 peer-reviewed articles in top journals, often co-authored with undergraduate and graduate students. Many of his former students have gone on to become successful researchers in their own right.
Ashley’s future work will continue to push boundaries and include efforts to improve sub-seasonal to seasonal prediction of weather perils.
“My team will continue to peer into the future of disasters,” Ashley says. “This work places NIU at the forefront of understanding some of the most acute issues facing society.”