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Wildfire smoke expert to receive NOAA’s David S. Johnson Award

October 18, 2021
Photo of meteorologist David A. Peterson, PhD.

David A. Peterson, Ph.D., a meteorologist with the Marine Meteorology Division of the Naval Research Laboratory in Monterey, California, will receive the agency’s prestigious David S. Johnson Award, which recognizes young scientists for their innovative use of environmental satellite data. He will receive the award on October 22, 2021, at the 64th Annual Dr. Robert H. Goddard Memorial Dinner in Washington, D.C. 

The NOAA-Johnson Award is named after the first assistant administrator of NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service and honors professional scientists who create new uses for observational satellite data to better predict atmospheric, oceanic, and terrestrial conditions.

Dr. Peterson is being recognized for developing and demonstrating the operational detection and classification of pyrocumulonimbus (fire-induced thunderstorm) clouds in geostationary satellite imagery to support operational and scientific users with timely, detailed information. Smoke from wildfires is a direct and immediate hazard to firefighters, as well as a threat to downwind populations, with significant effects on visibility, air quality and even surface heating.

"The Johnson award recognizes exemplary work from young scientists like David, who are using satellite data that help save lives, protect the economy and benefit society overall," said Dr. Stephen Volz, assistant administrator for NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service.

From his research, Peterson developed the world’s first global  pyrocumulonimbus monitoring website for identifying when these wildfire-driven thunderstorms are occurring and tracking where the downwind smoke is going. His research has also led to critical new insights into stratospheric composition and radiative energy balance that are perturbed seasonally by pyrocumulonimbus smoke plumes.

“We learned that the smoke plumes injected into the stratosphere by recent pyrocumulonimbus outbreaks in Canada and Australia rival or exceed the stratospheric impact from all volcanic eruptions over the past decade,” said Peterson. “We are working to understand the potential scale and intensity of this increasingly extreme fire-weather phenomenon in a warming climate.”

A native of northwest Indiana, Peterson received a bachelor’s degree in meteorology from Valparaiso University in 2007, his M.S. in Geosciences and Ph.D. in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2009 and 2012, respectively.