Working the Numbers
For IIHR Assistant Research Engineer Gabriele Villarini, the flood that struck Iowa City in 2008 led him to a new interest in extreme weather events. The flood also affected him in a more personal way.
The rising waters hit just as he was preparing for his PhD defense, and all university buildings were closed. He couldn’t postpone the defense, because one of the committee members was leaving for Europe the next day.
So Villarini successfully defended his PhD thesis in adviser Witold Krajewski’s basement. The experience only piqued Villarini’s interest in extreme weather.
Understanding the Past
Villarini spent the next several years at Princeton University working with Professor James Smith, broadening his research perspective and working with new colleagues. Through these connections and Smith’s guidance, Villarini was able to develop his growing interest in climate change and extreme events — in particular flooding and hurricanes.
In 2012, Villarini returned to IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering, where he is now affiliated with the Iowa Flood Center. Villarini is especially interested in learning how current weather events relate to the past. “Can we learn from the past to say something about the future?” he asks.
Villarini studies weather data records that stretch back more than 100 years. He admits the data are often far from clear. Changes in land use, construction of dams or other structures in the watershed, and changes in agricultural practice have all made a big impact. These alternations make it hard to determine a clear climate signal, Villarini explains.
Researchers are left with this persistent problem: the increasing occurrence of extreme weather events could be anthropogenic (manmade), or it could be the natural variability of weather — or some combination of the two.
But this complexity has not dimmed Villarini’s enthusiasm for studying historical data. “Before jumping into the future, we should try to understand the past.”
Villarini is starting a new project with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to determine how that agency can incorporate climate change into their practice. He’s excited about this new venture, although it presents a difficult problem. “How do we account for climate change when working on projects that should function for decades?” Villarini explains.
He believes this work could have a major impact on many people in the future, and that’s important to him. “I do hope my work makes a difference,” Villarini says, “by providing information about possible changes in the frequency and magnitude of extreme events, resulting in improvements in our adaptation and mitigation strategies.”
Villarini is a native of Rome, Italy, and planned a career as a civil engineer in the family construction company. Work on his master’s thesis introduced him to an area of study that he found fascinating: remote sensing and hydrology.
He decided to pursue a PhD in this area, and came to the University of Iowa to work with Witold Krajewski. Villarini says Krajewski was a very effective mentor. “You don’t want to let him down, so that makes you push even harder,” Villarini explains.
Villarini met another person in Iowa City who would dramatically shape his life: his wife Amie. “I decided I was going to propose four months after we started dating,” Villarini remembers. The couple now has a 2-year-old daughter, Eleonora.
“Iowa City has been very generous with me,” Villarini says. “When it comes to education, when it comes to personal life. ¼ It’s no Rome, but it’s getting there!”