Yale University professor wins Harold C. Urey Prize in Planetary Science

Professor Juan Laura won the Harold C. Urey Prize for research into the hydrological cycles of Earth and Titan’s atmosphere.

Hanwen Chang

10:35 PM, 02 October 2022

Staff Columnist

Courtesy of Juan Laura

Titan’s atmosphere contains more methane than Earth itself – which, from Earth’s perspective, equates to having more water molecules concentrated in the air than in the sea.

Studying these types of atmospheric processes has earned Associate Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences Juan Laura the 2022 Harold C. Urey Prize in Planetary Science. The award, which recognizes leadership and “outstanding achievement” by a scientist early in his career, was bestowed on Laura by the American Astronomical Society last month. The focal point of Laura’s research was Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.

“It’s a really nice surprise,” Laura said. “I have a memory for the first time…she sat at the Urey Prize talk…so now I’m in a position for her to give that talk…it’s kind of amazing.”

Laura, who joined the Yale faculty in January 2019, dedicated his research to the ancient Earth’s climate and atmosphere of Titan. Using digital climate models, his lab has observed a variety of weather-related phenomena occurring on terrestrial bodies throughout the solar system.

“Yale is fortunate to have Joanne,” said J. Michael Battalio, a postdoctoral researcher in Laura’s lab.

Laura focuses on the phenomenon of atmospheric rivers – narrow, long columns of air that transport moisture from outside the tropics – which are often behind extreme precipitation events. Serena Schulze, a first-year postdoctoral student in Laura’s lab, noted that his study of these water dynamics helped track changes in Earth’s water climate over time.

While some of Laura’s work has contributed to the Earth science community, his research has also taken him to space. Laura attended college and focused on studying astrophysics, but shifted his focus specifically to Titan in graduate school. During that time, he wrote and programmed the Titan Atmospheric Model — one of the “best developed and most reliable climate models we have for Titan,” according to Battalio.

Laura has led studies of the atmosphere of Titan, the only other terrestrial body in the solar system to possess a stable body of liquid, and is leading efforts to shed light on atmospheric cycles.

“We’re basically trying to understand what’s going on in Titan’s climate and atmosphere and how the surface and atmosphere interact,” Laura said.

To that end, Laura’s lab has worked to determine everything from the amount of methane precipitation to the location of storms on Titan. Some of the lab’s latest publications provide important insights into Titan’s methane-saturated atmosphere. One of these papers investigated a dynamic set of jet stream motions, known as Rossby waves, that were responsible for months-long storms on Titan.

Laura appreciates collaborative research efforts across planets in his lab, noting that “it’s all about the same kinds of physics, perhaps working in slightly different environments or in slightly different ways.”

By exploring such an enormous diversity of terrestrial bodies, the team can add valuable insights to our understanding of Earth. For example, Laura expects that the similarities between Titan’s methane cycle and its aquatic counterpart here on Earth help scientists better understand changes in our climate.

Oftentimes, we can kind of glean some ideas from one [terrestrial body] Laura said.

The laboratory work will be used directly in the coming years. Laura is a co-investigator on NASA’s Dragonfly 2027 mission, a project that explores the chemistry and habitability of Titan. Providing insight and forecasts for local weather conditions, Laura’s research will play an immediate role in the mission’s success.

The first Harold C. Urey Prize was awarded in 1984.

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