Geology & Geophysics AGU News

Peter J. Webster Receives 2015 International Award

Peter J. Webster received the 2015 International Award at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 16 December 2015 in San Francisco, Calif. The award honors "an individual scientist, group, or a small team for making an outstanding contribution to furthering the Earth and space sciences and using science for the benefit of society in developing nations."

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Peter J. Webster
Peter J. Webster

Peter Webster has made landmark contributions to the understanding of the dynamics of the tropical atmosphere and especially to the workings of the south Asian monsoon, which affects the billions of people living in the subtropics. Webster’s vision and insight led to one of the grandest international field campaigns in the history of atmospheric sciences—the Tropical Ocean Global Atmosphere Coupled Ocean Atmosphere Response Experiment (TOGA COARE)—which em-ployed numerous ships and aircraft in a logistically complex array over the remote tropical Pacific Ocean “warm pool,” which hosts an interacting set of cloud systems, atmospheric waves, and ocean-atmospheric fluxes that affect weather and climate over the globe. TOGA COARE provided an observational data set that continues to stand as a cornerstone for advancing understanding of tropical dynamics and improving weather and climate models.

Webster’s preacademic career was as a weather forecaster in Australia. In the past decade he has returned to forecasting, turning theoretical insights into monsoonal dynamics toward improving monsoon predictions for south Asian countries. He has focused on the 1–2 week warning time frame, which, as known from his own research, is the typical time scale of the somewhat erratic but “active” and “break” periods of the monsoon. From his work on the fundamentals of active/break cycles, he recognized how the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) global model handles these cycles and has developed a method for forecasting upcoming dry and wet spells based on statistical rendering of the ECMWF output. He has combined this model forecast framework with a river runoff model to be able to predict with remarkable acuity the probability of disasters such as the floods that have devastated Pakistan in the last several years. These forecasts aim also to help prevent crop failures from either flood or excessive dryness on 1–2 week time scales.

Webster has worked tirelessly with agencies and governments concerned with disaster mitigation and regional forecasting. In some 20 journeys to south Asia in the past decade and a half he has organized a project called Climate Forecast Applications in Bangladesh, which proved that storm and flood forecasts were practicable with 1–2 week lead times, and now has formed a company to bring these methods to the various countries of south Asia. In the January 2013 issue of Nature, Webster laid out a plan in which these methods can contribute to disaster mitigation in south Asia if only the correct combination of governmental and private sector participants can be realized.

—Robert Houze, University of Washington, Seattle

Response

I am deeply honored to receive the AGU International Award. Thank you to the Union and my nominators. Any contribution to international research has been achieved in tandem with many people over a long period of time.

I became interested in the tropics. Forty years ago, forecasting variations in the monsoon was a rather haphazard empirical affair. But we had started to understand some of the basic dynamics that set the tropics apart. Not only was it an almost untouched field, it provided an opportunity to do something socially useful. With the growing power of numerical weather prediction, there seemed to be a hope that we could move from qualitative forecasting efforts to something more quantitative. But to achieve this goal, we needed to understand the elementary physics of the basic phenomena we were trying to predict. This requirement led to a series of low-latitude field experiments: MONEX, describing basic monsoon behavior, EMEX documenting the involvement of smaller scale elements in monsoon dynamics, TOGA in which was developed a real-time operational ENSO monitoring, TOGA COARE that provided new insights into ocean-atmosphere interaction, and JASMINE investigating intraseasonal variability of the monsoon. My involvement in these international experiments has forged valued and lasting relationships across many communities around the world.

Perhaps the deepest gratification has come from working with many talented graduate students, many of whom are from overseas. I have mentored seven doctoral students from South America and seven from Asia. I have learnt so much from each of them about different approaches to life, research, and social interactions. This introduction to social differences has proven extremely useful as we endeavored to use our hazard forecasting techniques in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. Merely transferring technology turns out to be insufficient and, without due deference to different social norms, international projects often wither in the “Valley of Death.” We are still learning how to become more effective.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge partners with whom I have worked, in particular, Robert Houze Jr., Roger Lukas, Timothy Palmer, Sri A. Subbiah, Tom Brennan, and Ernesto Sánchez-Triana. In addition, I thank members of my research group, many of whom have accompanied me on this interesting journey over the last few decades. To a large degree, Georgia Tech has made possible many of our international projects. Also, special thanks and gratitude for the steadfast support of my partner, Judith Curry.

—Peter J. Webster, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta

Citation: AGU (2016), Peter J. Webster receives 2015 International Award, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO042499. Published on 6 January 2016.

© 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0