LASP researcher and Atmospheric Sciences professor Brian Toon elected AAAS Fellow

Brian Toon with LASP and University of Colorado Boulder. (Photo by Casey A. Cass/CU Boulder)

Brian Toon, a researcher at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado Boulder, has been elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The association is recognizing Toon, who is also a professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, “for fundamental contributions toward understanding the role of clouds and aerosols in the climates of Earth and other planets, and for warning the world of the dangers of nuclear weapons”.

During his 50-year career, Dr. Toon has published more than 350 papers in refereed scientific journals and has mentored more than 40 graduate and postdoctoral students. Since coming to CU Boulder in 1997, Toon has developed several new courses, both at the graduate and undergraduate levels, including one focused on understanding the physics and chemistry of clouds and aerosols. 

In awarding Dr. Toon this honor, the AAAS is acknowledging his many achievements, from his trailblazing research to communicating the importance of the results with audiences ranging from politicians to the general public. This includes his substantial contributions to understanding the dangers of nuclear conflicts on Earth’s atmosphere, research that influenced the recent United Nations agreement to globally ban nuclear weapons.

We recently caught up with Toon to learn more about what inspires him, what this honor means to him, and how the atmospheres of our solar system’s innermost planets relate to a favorite childhood fable.

LASP: What inspired you to study atmospheric science?

BT: As a graduate student at Cornell in the 1970’s, I had the opportunity to work with Carl Sagan and Jim Pollack on the climate of Mars. Sagan was an idea-person who inspired me to have an open mind about new concepts, while Pollack was a detail guy who focused on the development of techniques to address important problems. They both saw the atmosphere as controlling the evolution of planetary climates, which inspired my work developing the astronomical theory of climate change for Mars.

LASP: What does receiving this honor mean to you?

BT: I am very pleased that AAAS recognized my work. My research on nuclear winters shows the dangers of conflicts, such as the current one over in Ukraine. If a conflict between Russia, the US, and NATO accidentally become nuclear, it would devastate global civilization. I hope the AAAS recognition may help me obtain more attention from all governments regarding the dangers of nuclear weapons.

LASP: How did you become interested in studying nuclear winters?

BT: My research has helped answer some interesting questions, such as why did the dinosaurs become extinct? Studying the extinction of the dinosaurs led to the discovery of nuclear winter. The common idea between these two things is that the increase in smoke in the stratosphere, whether it’s caused by an explosion from an asteroid impact or nuclear weapons, would block sunlight and plunge the Earth into temperatures colder than an ice age, threatening life as we know it.

LASP: How has your research simulating the climates of other planets shed new light on Earth’s climate? 

BT: There are strong parallels between the histories of Venus, Earth, and Mars, as well as strong differences. All three planets probably started with somewhat similar atmospheres, but then diverged, so just like in the story of the three bears, Venus is now too hot, Mars is too cold, but Earth is just right for life. With climate change, the question is: what do we need to do to keep Earth just right? We don’t yet completely understand the answer to this question, although we know a lot more now than when I was a student.

LASP: What is significant about your legacy regarding “warning the world of the dangers of nuclear weapons”?

BT: I have worked on the effects of nuclear weapons on the environment for about 40 years. Although I played a role in influencing Presidents Regan and Gorbachev to start reducing the number of nuclear devices, about 18% of them still remain today. Unfortunately, modern politicians seem to have forgotten about the dangers, and a true solution has not been achieved.

LASP: What piece of advice would you give to students who are interested in atmospheric research?

BT: I have observed over my career that it doesn’t matter how smart you are or what school you went to. What matters is your passion for the subject, and your willingness to work hard to understand it.

Written by Willow Reed – LASP Communication Specialist