A world leader in atmospheric sciences shares how BSF grants have helped him throughout his career
In the atmospheric sciences, Pinhas Alpert is widely considered a pioneer. His body of work is used by scientists all over the world. He almost became the first Israeli on board a NASA space mission. Although reflecting on it now, he jokes “I don’t think my wife would have been happy about it.” He has won many awards; his most recent prestigious honor came last year, when he became the first Israeli to win the Vilhelm Bjerknes Medal for outstanding contributions to atmospheric dynamics and aerosol science.
After winning the Bjerknes Medal, he said there is “no question in my mind that my BSF funding has made a significant contribution toward this achievement.”
Alpert, currently a professor at Tel Aviv University, has received four BSF grants throughout his career. For this Jerusalem native, the grants not only helped financially support his work, they helped him solidify collaborations with several U.S. scientists who have meant a lot to him throughout his career.
His first BSF grant was in 1986 for his project “Physical Mechanisms of Eastern Mediterranean Cyclogenesis: A Numerical Study”, with the late Dr. Thomas Warner of Penn State University.
“I was very fortunate to be associated with Warner when I was just starting my career,” Alpert said. “He helped me enter the world of mesoscale modeling with his vast experience as developer of the original WRF (Weather Research and Forecasting) model (called Mesososcale Model version 4, or MM4) during the 1980s.”
Alpert credits Warner, along with another American project partner, Prof. T.N. Krishnamurti of Florida State University, for making important contributions in the development of what is now known as the FS methodology, where FS stands for Factor Separation. Alpert introduced the method, which led to an in-depth understanding of the synergizing effects of atmospheric factors used for the studies of weather, climate and other applications. The FS methodology has been applied by many scientists in a variety of environmental studies, including paleoclimatology, limnology, regional climate change, rainfall analysis, cloud modelling, pollution and crop growth, as well as forecasting.
“Krishnamurti was most helpful because he really encouraged the use of FS methodology,” Alpert said.
Another BSF grant – for a project studying Middle East dust sources – led to one of the highlights of Alpert’s career: an influential paper published in Nature that pushed forward the incorporation of aerosol effects in climate simulations.
The atmosphere contains aerosols, which scatter or absorb sunlight to varying degrees, depending on their physical properties. One most common example of an aerosol is airborne dust. For the BSF-funded project, he and his U.S. partners, used dust from the Sahara Desert to study the variation in atmospheric energy that contributes to climate change.
The Sahara was an ideal geographic location for this project, since dust from the Sahara sits in what meteorologists call the Saharan air layer, a hot and dry layer of the atmosphere that sits directly above cooler and more humid air above the Atlantic Ocean. This hot, dusty air puts a stop to any thunderstorms that may develop in the moist layer beneath it.
They investigated the origin of significant decadal variations in surface solar radiation, also known as solar dimming, and found that this was dominated by anthropogenic aerosol.
The team’s findings led them to suggest that increased urbanization, particularly in the world’s megacities, make a major contribution to solar dimming. In other words, Alpert stands with the vast majority of scientists who say that humans do contribute to global warming.
Prof. Arlindo da Silva, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, was one of Alpert’s partners for this project, as well as the co-author of the paper in Nature. Alpert and da Silva are now working on a follow-up paper, which will examine how the study of aerosols has evolved in the past 20 years.
Alpert has been a leading force in the development of aerosol studies and has demonstrated a strong and continuous commitment in education. Almost two decades ago, he established the Tel Aviv University Weather Research Center and served (2008-2013) as head of the Porter School of the Environment and Earth Sciences at Tel Aviv University. The school’s proximity to the Sahara, as well as other deserts in the Middle East, gives Alpert and his students the opportunity to provide daily dust storm predictions.
Alpert’s most recent BSF grant came in 2010, for a project using radar and microwave link technologies to improve rainfall estimates. For this project, he partnered with Prof. V. Chandrasekar of Colorado State University.
The project led to the creation of a novel method for monitoring rainfall patterns and atmospheric moisture using networks of cellular infrastructure. This method has a high potential to improve flash-flood forecasting, which is particularly important in mountainous arid and semiarid regions.
Chandrasekar said this partnership proved to be an effective match of investigators from different backgrounds. While Alpert focuses on the atmosphere, Chandrasekar’s specialty is engineering.
“My experience is in radar system design, radar network development, DSP design and RF communication systems. This gives me the opportunity to contribute to the areas of weather radar and applications,” he said. “We are both very excited about ways that this method can lead to improved weather forecasting.”
Throughout his career, Alpert has created a body of published work that has effectively become a book on the history of modern meteorology, according to many scientists. Through his continued teaching, he relishes the opportunity to influence future generations of atmospheric scientists.
He also encourages his promising Israeli students to consider applying for BSF grants.
“For an Israeli scientist, a BSF grant is very impressive,” he said. “When you receive a BSF grant, you get more than funding. The BSF staff do everything they can to help you. That’s not the case with many other grants. BSF is committed not only to science, but to helping its grantees succeed. BSF has certainly helped me to succeed, and I very grateful for that.”