Assessing Climate Risk – My Fellowship Year: Like An ‘Inverted Delta’

October 27, 2022 | ,  

A photo of Kara Voss, PhD, a 2022 CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellow with the title of her blog post and CCST logo on a blue background
Kara Voss, PhD, is a 2022 CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellow placed with the Climate and Sustainability Branch of the California Department of Insurance. Born in Miami, Florida; Kara moved to Sacramento from San Diego, where she studied how airborne dust and wildfire smoke impact weather, water resources, and human health. She earned her PhD and MS in Oceanography from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego and a BS in Marine and Atmospheric Science from the University of Miami.

As a flowing river runs into a larger, standing body of water like a lake or the sea, it deposits sediment into a triangular shaped wetland known as a delta—most often with a narrow tip at the river opening into the broader end of the open water.

Occasionally, this formation can happen in the reverse, where a wide network of rivers flows through a narrowing channel, slowing the flow and depositing sediments in the shape of an inverted delta.

 

A GIF visual representation of a delta and inverted delta on a blue background using orange square particles
Conceptual diagram of a common delta formation compared to an inverted delta, such as the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. | Mikel Shybut, CCST

 

The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, located on the western edge of the Central Valley, is an example of an inverted river delta. A network of many smaller channels flow through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta—forming the wide end of the delta—and converge at the narrow Carquinez Strait, flowing through a gap in the Coast Range.

 

A map of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta on a white background
A map of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The water flow, flowing from the wide network of smaller channels to the west through Suisun Bay and into the narrow Carquinez Strait, forms an inverted delta. | Source: USGS

 

For me, this year as a CCST S&T Policy Fellow reminds me of an inverted delta. It feels like all the little rivers of knowledge, skills, and relationships from my past have been able to converge towards truly meaningful work on an issue I care deeply about. I cannot wait to see where this river flows.

I’m a climate scientist by training – maybe you guessed that when I began with an analogy to a river. My Ph.D. is from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego where my work focused on the impact of dust on atmospheric rivers—the storms that produce more than half of California’s rainfall in most years. Dust is a natural cloud seed—promoting ice formation that leads to rain or snowfall—and dust transported from as far away as China is thought to increase snowfall in the Sierra Nevada.

 

In my placement, I’ve been able to connect all the pieces of my past work on oceans, extreme weather, and wildfire and see them through the lens of insurance and climate finance.

 

Before my dissertation work, my research focused on the ocean. Specifically, I was interested in how ocean acidification impacts phytoplankton and corals. After my dissertation, I worked on wildfire smoke research through a postdoc at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy. I meandered through each of these research topics following my own curiosity. Much like little rivers in a delta, they were distinct but intertwined in many ways.

Like sloping topography, there was a common force shaping the way I flowed through these topics. I wanted to understand how climate change is shifting the landscape that our society is operating in, so that I could help find solutions for mitigating and adapting to this shift. The research was fascinating, but what really motivated me was the idea of taking this knowledge out into the world and using it to shape policy in the public sector or identify solutions in the private sector.

When I decided that this was what I wanted to do, there was not a single part of me that thought that I would find myself working at an insurance regulatory authority. My knowledge of insurance began and ended with my own auto insurance policy and my eyes would glaze over reading the fine print.

 

Research experience teaches you to problem solve, think independently, check your sources, and own a project from start to finish – skills that are invaluable in policy.

 

However, during the CCST placement interviews I met the friendly and enthusiastic team from the Climate & Sustainability Branch of the California Department of Insurance—including alums Mike Peterson ’17 and Rabab Charafeddine ‘21—who opened my eyes to the many ways that insurance and climate are deeply intertwined. Insurance claims and access to insurance are directly tied to the weather and climate extremes that I focused on in my research. Insurance companies are the some of the largest institutional investors in the U.S. and are therefore vulnerable to climate risks and have enormous influence on the global economy. Perhaps most excitingly, insurance can be used as a mechanism to fund adaptation to and mitigation of climate change.

 

Kara and Mike Peterson standing in front of a fireplace holding her certificate of Fellowship completion
The end of Kara’s Fellowship was commemorated by her office mentor and CCST alum Mike Peterson, PhD (’17), Deputy Commissioner on Climate and Sustainability in the Department of Insurance. | CCST

 

In my placement, I’ve been able to connect all the pieces of my past work on oceans, extreme weather, and wildfire and see them through the lens of insurance and climate finance. I analyze and recommend positions on bills going through the legislative process. I lead a project analyzing how climate risk impacts insurance companies’ investments through climate scenario analysis where my climate science background gives me an edge. I work with a colleague on developing a program for how insurance intersects with solutions for coastal resilience, leveraging my ocean science background. Finally, I support our branch’s portfolio of work related to wildfire—often thinking back to my wildfire work as a postdoc. I regularly reach out to my colleagues who are still doing this kind of research for insights and advice. A bonus of the CCST fellowship for me was getting to be closer to my family in Northern California.

 

Side by side photos of Kara skiing and holding her nephew
Kara and her dad going ski touring on a sunny day near Lake Tahoe (left). Kara meeting her new nephew, Nathan, in San Francisco (right). | Kara Voss

 

There were times during my Ph.D. when I was unsure of my path; unsure if it was really worth it for what I wanted to do. In this role, I’ve found that I’m grateful for it every day. Research experience teaches you to problem solve, think independently, check your sources, and own a project from start to finish—skills that are invaluable in policy. I’m fortunate to have accepted a permanent position in my placement office at the Climate & Sustainability Branch of the California Department of Insurance. I’m continuing with projects that I began during my placement year, adding new ones to my portfolio, and working alongside a supportive and energetic team. Approaching the end of my inverted delta year of the Fellowship, I can’t wait to see where this river takes me!

 


About the CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellowship
The CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellows program places PhD-level scientists, engineers, and social scientists in the California State Legislature, State Agencies, and Offices of the Governor for a year of public policy, leadership training, and public service—training scientific thinkers to be policy-savvy, while helping equip California’s decision makers with science-savvy staff. Discover how our CCST S&T Policy Fellows make a difference in California’s policy arena and learn how to apply at CCST.us/CCST-Science-Fellows-Program.

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