Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences

Kris Karnauskas

Kris Karnauskas

Research Interests

My lab explores the dynamics of the coupled Earth system toward useful predictions of impacts ranging from marine ecosystems to human health. Specifically, we aim to understand the circuitry of the tropical ocean and atmosphere, its interaction with ecosystems and with higher latitude regions, how and why the climate system has changed in the past, and how climate will continue to change in the future–both naturally and as driven by human activities. We employ a "big data" methodology, leveraging satellite and instrumental observations, large international ensembles of global coupled climate model simulations, and running several ocean and atmosphere circulation models in house.

Teaching Profile

Through teaching, I aim to equip students with the tools to investigate, communicate, and act intelligently on matters of global change. I routinely teach courses on climate science and oceanography (ATOC 1060, ATOC 3070, ATOC 4730/5730).

Current Research

Climate Dynamics:

One of my primary research objectives is to understand the dynamics of Earth's climate at global and regional scales. How and why does climate vary from year to year, decade to decade, century to century, and beyond? A particular focus is on the dynamics of the tropical ocean and atmosphere as a coupled system, such as the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and other intrinsic modes of climate variability. How do the tropics, extratropics, and high latitude regions interact? How will key aspects of Earth's climate respond to the radiative forcing associated with greenhouse gas emissions over the course of this century? I use observations (including satellites) and numerical models to explore these questions.

Climate Impacts:

"No challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change," said President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address on January 20, 2015. Climate change is a global problem, but the impacts are felt locally. "...rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration and conflict and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it."

In my lab, we combine "big data" (dozens of global climate models, satellites, etc.) as well as pinpoint measurements to understand the impacts of climate variability and change on marine ecosystems, transportation, freshwater resources, sea level, and tropical cyclones.

Ocean Circulation:

The thermal inertial of the climate system is in the ocean, so understanding the physics governing the storage of heat by the ocean and the movement of heat and other properties by currents is essential to understanding climate variability and change. Ocean circulation also serves as the mediator between large-scale climate variability and impacts on marine ecosystems. I seek to better understand the ocean circulation, particularly in the tropical Pacific, and translate such knowledge into improved overall understanding of global climate dynamics and projected impacts on marine ecosystems.  


Hadley circulation. A side view depicting the familiar atmospheric overturning cell linking Earth's tropics and subtropics. In "On the dynamics of the Hadley circulation and subtropical drying," we (Karnauskas and Ummenhofer 2014) argue that this perspective hides some of the basic, underlying dynamics and spatial structure of the Hadley circulation.


Freshwater stress. At least 18 million people live on islands too small for the current generation of global climate models (GCMs) to resolve. Efforts are afoot to characterize the freshwater balance and its likely response to global warming at such places anyway.

The Galápagos Islands and the Equatorial Undercurrent. Viewed from space, the Galápagos is but a dot in an otherwise enormous basin. However, the very dynamics governing the equatorial oceans also confer upon the Galápagos a potential influence significantly beyond that expected from its physical dimensions (Karnauskas et al. 2007).

Honors and Awards

  • AGU Ocean Sciences Early Career Award
  • Sloan Research Fellowship, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
  • Moltz Fellowship, Ocean and Climate Change Institute, WHOI
  • Lamont Postdoctoral Fellowship, LDEO of Columbia University
  • Meteorological Satellite Applications Award, National Weather Association
  • Hilldale Undergraduate Research Fellowship, University of Wisconsin-Madison