Faces of the Forest Service

Meet Yongquiang Liu

May 23rd, 2019 at 3:01PM
Yongqiang Liu sitting at a desk, outside, setting a ceilometer to measure smoke plume from a prescribed fire at the Fort Benning Army Base, Georgia.
Yongqiang Liu setting a ceilometer to measure smoke plume from a prescribed fire at the Fort Benning Army Base, Georgia. (Photo courtesy Ken Forbes, a Forest Service retiree).

Yongqiang Liu is a research meteorologist at the Southern Research Station. He grew up in the city of Yangzhou in Eastern China, about 150 miles from Shanghai. With its 2500-year-old history, Yangzhou is rich in traditional Chinese culture. This had a profound impact upon Liu, leading him to an interest in traditional Chinese arts, such as calligraphy and poems, when he was very young. These interests have remained a part of his life, even though he left China in the early 1990s.

Who or what inspired you growing up?
My K–12 life was during the so-called “Cultural Revolution,” a 10-year period when China was almost isolated from the West. However, a newspaper called Reference News was available to the public, and this publication reported important scientific news from around the world. I still remember reading a report describing how changes in the Earth’s orbit had caused the ice age. It seemed like magic to me to be able to foresee something that could happen thousands of years in advance, and that inspired my interest in weather and climate forecast. 

What do you like to do for fun in your free time?
I like to practice Chinese calligraphy, an art of writing Chinese characters using brush and ink on rice paper. Chinese characters are written in varied styles of regular, official, seal, running hand and cursive hand. In addition to enjoying the beauty of Chinese characters, calligraphy is also a good way to be focused and patient and to calm the mind, something like practicing Chinese Taiji.  

What do you do in the Forest Service, and when did you start working here?
I started my job in the Forest Service as a research meteorologist in 2002. In my position, I study forest disturbances including wildland fires, afforestation/deforestation and climate variability/climate change. I want to know the impacts of climate on wildfire and provide tools for managers and policy-makers to develop adaptation and mitigation strategies. I simulate smoke transport and air quality effects to help manage maximum use of prescribed burning tools while meeting the increasingly tough air quality regulations. I analyze the feedbacks of wildfires to climate to improve climate and earth system modeling. I also develop modeling tools to investigate the forest ecosystem and climate interactions related to land cover change and other forest disturbances. 

What is your favorite part of your job?
My research is related to two of the most active topics in the last couple of decades for both researchers and managers, that is, wildfire and climate variability/climate change. Wildfires, especially mega-fires, have increased in the recent two decades in many regions of the world, including the United States. Meanwhile, a so-called “century” drought has prevailed in the western United States since the beginning of the 21st century, and this is considered to be a major contributor to the increasing wildfires. To work on these two important issues to understand their relationships and management implications is my favorite part of my job.

A picture Yongqiang Liu, with three other colleagues, wearing hard hats and a yellow fire shirt, while visiting the 2017 Okefenokee Fire site in Georgia / Florida.
Yongqiang Liu (second from left) visiting the 2017 Okefenokee Fire site in Georgia / Florida. (Photo courtesy Buck Kline, Georgia Forestry Commission)

How has your education, background or personal experiences prepared you for the work that you do now?
My major in college and graduate school was atmospheric science. Math and numerical tools are needed to solve the complex equations controlling atmospheric processes. Thus, I took many courses in math, physics and computer programming, which are essential for my current research. My doctoral thesis was about air, land and vegetation interactions. Working on my thesis was the first time that I recognized the important connection between ecosystems and climate. Before joining the Forest Service, I worked on regional climate models, which consist of coupled atmosphere and land-surface components. Regional climate modeling is now a very useful tool for my research on forest disturbances. 

Describe a recent, current or upcoming project that you’re currently working on.
I am working on a project funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on future wildfires and their air quality and human health impacts in the United States. This is a collaborative effort between the Forest Service and universities: the role of the Forest Service is to project future wildfires and estimate fire emissions. The preliminary results show that fire emissions will increase by more than 50 percent by the middle of this century due to increasing fires and fuel loading under changing climate. The fire emission projections have been provided to the collaborating universities for further research on the air quality and human health impacts. 

Describe a professional or personal achievement that you are particularly proud of.
It has been long-recognized that drought is a driver of large wildfires. I conducted a study, probably the earliest one of this kind in the climate and fire communities, to look at the opposite side of the situation, that is, the impacts of wildfires on drought. I used a regional climate model to simulate the 1988 Yellowstone fires and showed that the smoke particle emissions from the wildfires changed atmospheric radiation and precipitation, which might have enhanced the severe northern U.S. drought that prevailed during the Yellowstone fires.

Yongqiang Liu illustrating Chinese calligraphy, by writing on a large piece of paper, to colleagues during a seminar to celebrate the Asia and Pacific Month.
Yongqiang Liu illustrating Chinese calligraphy to colleagues during a seminar to celebrate the Asia and Pacific Month at the Laboratory of Forest Science in Athens, Georgia. (USDA Forest Service photo by Marilyn Howard.)

Why do you think your field is important?
Wildland fires (including wildfire and prescribed fire) are among the strategic priorities of Forest Service research and development. Wildfires are a natural ecological process that helps shape the structure and functions of many species. However, wildfires lead to severe damages to forests, the environment, and human property and life. Predicting wildfire activity is essential for planning and preventing the adverse impacts of wildfires. Prescribed fire is a management tool to reduce hazardous fuels and wildfire risk. Its implementation is limited by safety, efficiency and air quality concerns. Understanding burn conditions helps land managers ensure that prescribed fire reaches identified management goals while minimizing negative consequences.

What are some of the greatest challenges confronting your field?
Fire and smoke vary remarkably and interactively in space and time. They also interact with fuels and the atmosphere. The challenges for fire and smoke research include understanding these complex interactions and feedbacks, developing integrated high-resolution modeling and prediction systems, and obtaining field measurements for model development and evaluation.  

What are some of the most promising strategies being used by the Forest Service to address these challenges?
The Forest Service and other federal agencies are planning and implementing comprehensive field campaigns as a strategy for addressing these challenges. Recently, I participated in the modeling efforts of the Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation Experiment, a project led by the Forest Service. During Phase I, we identified major issues for model improvement and the most critical observational needs for the development of the dynamic, more coupled and high-resolution next-generation smoke research and forecasting systems. The Phase II of FASMEE will conduct comprehensive measurements of forest fuels and consumption, fire behavior and energy, smoke and meteorology, and emissions and chemistry starting in late spring/early summer 2019. 

How would you like the public to perceive the work we do at the Forest Service?
Forests improve our lives by moderating local climate, providing fresh water and air, and absorbing atmospheric carbon. However, these functions are under threat due to increasing disturbances such as wildfires. The public deserves to be better informed of the threats, causes and solutions, how their lives would be affected, and what resources and supports are available to reduce adverse impacts. I would like the public to see our work as a valuable source of the information they need.

Do you have any advice for someone wanting to serve their country as a Forest Service employee?
During my research on wildfire for nearly two decades, I have seen increasing interactions among scientific disciplines. For example, wildfire was traditionally an issue of ecology; it is now also an issue of air quality, human health, climate science and soil science. I would like to suggest to someone wanting to serve the country as a Forest Service researcher to prepare by gathering knowledge and developing skills in multiple disciplines.