National Oceanic and Atmospheric AdministrationThe NOAA Aeronomy Lab: Understanding Our Complex Atmosphere
Aeronomy Definition

The NOAA Aeronomy Laboratory was formed in the 1960s to conduct scientific research on the Earth's atmosphere in an effort to better understand and predict its behavior. That perhaps unfamiliar name — "aeronomy" — has Greek origins and means "the study of the atmospheres of planets." The Aeronomy Laboratory focus is, of course, on Planet Earth. Specifically, the Aeronomy Laboratory's mission has been the study of the chemical, radiative and dynamical processes of the Earth's atmosphere, in order to improve the ability to predict its behavior. Today, the Aeronomy Laboratory's research focuses on the following three atmospheric issues:

  • Climate: Chemical Composition, Radiation, and Clouds
  • Regional Air Chemistry
  • Stratospheric Ozone-Layer Recovery

For all three areas, one hallmark of the Aeronomy Laboratory is its overarching efforts to relate scientific findings to the information needs of decisionmakers, via leadership and participation in state-of-understanding assessment reports on the topics. Approximately 110 scientists, engineers, computer specialists, postdoctoral and student researchers and administrative support staff are engaged in these endeavors at the David Skaggs Research Center in Boulder, Colorado.

Understanding Atmospheric Processes: Answering the "How?" and "Why?" Questions

Overview of NOAA Aeronomy Laboratory research issues

On the broadest level, the Aeronomy Laboratory's focus on the atmospheric sciences is intended to advance the scientific understanding of atmospheric processes, with the aim of enhancing the capability to observe, understand and predict the behavior of the atmosphere. The chemical, radiative and dynamical processes of the atmosphere are the gears, belts and pulleys of atmospheric change. As such, their identification and characterization are necessary for understanding and predicting the behavior of regional and global phenomena, which is at the heart of NOAA's mission.

From 1965 to Present: Providing a Scientific Information Service for National and International Decisionmakers
Although the specific scientific issues addressed by the Aeronomy Laboratory's research have evolved over the years, its guiding principle has remained steadfast — to meet the nation's most-pressing needs for scientific information about the atmosphere and its relation to the activities of humankind.

This brief history clearly illustrates that the Aeronomy Laboratory's scientific direction is dynamic, not static. As new scientific questions arise (that are consistent with NOAA's mission and planning), the laboratory changes direction to address those issues — thereby significantly contributing to national scientific needs.

Aeronomy Laboratory Research Approaches: Integration and Synergies

Three approaches used in NOAA Aeronomy Laboratory research

The Aeronomy Laboratory's research involves the integration of the following three approaches:

A hallmark of the Aeronomy Laboratory is the integration of these thre endeavors to build a better predictive understanding. Specifically, the investigations in the laboratory characterize properties of chemical reactions, which are used both in predictive models and as a test bed for the development of new analytical techniques. Field campaigns provide the observations to test the predictive capabilities of models, as well as unknown processes that should be examined in the laboratory. Diagnostic models, via sensitivity studies, evaluate the impact of processes on the global picture, investigate which chemical processes would have the biggest payoff for laboratory investigations, as well as help guide the design of regional or global field campaigns.


An Aeronomy Lab researcher investigates the ozone hole above Antarctica

Awards and Recognition: Over the years, the accomplishments of Aeronomy Laboratory scientists have been recognized within NOAA, by the nation and on the international level. Its scientists have received the NOAA Administrator's Award, the Department of Commerce Gold Medal, the Presidential Rank Award, the National Medal of Science, membership in the National Academy of Sciences and awards from the United Nations Environment Programme.

Service as Leaders: Aeronomy Laboratory scientists have been asked to serve in scientific leadership roles, such as chairmanship of the Science Working Group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Scientific Assessment Panel of the United Nations Montreal Protocol on the ozone layer and the Air Quality Research Subcommittee of the administration's Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. Aeronomy Laboratory scientists have also been asked to serve in leadership positions on special-focus committees of professional societies (such as the American Meteorological Society and the National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council) and on scientific steering committees of international research programs (e.g., the World Climate Research Programme's Stratospheric Processes and Their Role in Climate (SPARC) project and the International Global Atmospheric Chemistry Project).

Signature accomplishments of the Aeronomy Laboratory include:

Recent Aeronomy Laboratory accomplishments include the following:

Chemical and radiative processes are important in climate, air quality, and ozone-layer depletion

Research Partnerships

The Aeronomy Laboratory works with the University of Colorado's Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. This Joint Institute was established in 1967 to provide a setting for collaborative research and teaching in the wide-ranging disciplines of the environmental sciences. Over half of the Aeronomy Laboratory's researchers are affiliated with CIRES.

The Aeronomy Laboratory also has research and scientific leadership partnerships with colleagues from other NOAA Research laboratories and other NOAA line offices. For example, the Aeronomy Laboratory is working with the NOAA National Weather Service to develop a new NOAA forecasting service for air quality. The Aeronomy Laboratory also works extensively with external collaborators, such as the cooperative institute AIRMAP in New Hampshire, other federal agencies, private industry and scores of universities and organizations worldwide.

What's Next for the Aeronomy Laboratory?

A continued focus on NOAA's information mission; the Aeronomy Laboratory's research contributes to two of the goals in the NOAA Strategic Plan: Climate (Goal 2) and Weather and Water (Goal 3). In addition, the Aeronomy Laboratory is serving in major leadership roles within NOAA's program management and planning. Aeronomy Laboratory scientists are leading two of the 39 program areas of NOAA. Aeronomy Laboratory Director, Daniel L. Albritton, is the program manager for the Climate Forcing program of NOAA's Climate Program and research scientist, James Meagher, is the program manager for the Air Quality Program within the Weather and Water goal.

Future Scientific Challenges

Some of the major scientific challenges that the Aeronomy Laboratory will continue to face in the next decade are:

New England Air Quality Study - Intercontinetal Transport and Chemical Transformation 2004 field study

What is the Expectation for the Longer Term?

Long term expectations for the Aeronomy Lab

The Aeronomy Lab continues to serve in leadership roles for the international state-of-understanding scientific assessment reports on the topics of climate, ozone-layer depletion, and air quality. In addition, the Aeronomy Lab has led the development of user-friendly documents to answer frequently asked questions about ozone and climate for the public, students, and other non-specialists. Aeronomy Lab scientists are serving as the international cochairs of the scientific panels that will produce the next assessment report on the ozone layer (WMO/UNEP, 2006) and climate (IPCC, 2007).The future is one of more people, ever-increasing standards of living and more numerous technologies. The demands on Earth's resources will undoubtedly go up, rather than down. Therefore, the chemical stresses on the atmosphere will likely increase, driving the value of scientific information about the atmosphere even higher than it is today. As a result, it is foreseeable that the future holds a "bull market" for NOAA's atmospheric information service. For its part, the Aeronomy Laboratory will continue to provide its trademark end-to-end service: