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Yale professor wins Harold C. Urey Prize in Planetary Science


Professor Juan Lora wins the Harold C. Urey Prize for research in Earth’s hydrological cycles and Titan’s atmosphere.

Hanwen Zhang

10:35 pm, Oct 02, 2022

Staff Columnist

Courtesy of Juan Lora

The atmosphere of Titan holds more methane than the ground itself — which, in Earth terms, would be the equivalent of having more water molecules concentrated in the air than the sea. 

The study of these kinds of atmospheric processes has earned assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences Juan Lora the 2022 Harold C. Urey Prize in Planetary Science. The award, which recognizes leadership and “outstanding achievements” by an early-career scientist, was given to Lora by the American Astronomical Society last month. A focal point of Lora’s research has been Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.

“It’s a really nice … surprise,” Lora said. “I have a memory of the first time I … sat in on the Urey prize talk … so to now be in a position to give this talk … it’s kind of amazing.”

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

“Yale is lucky to have Juan,” J. Michael Battalio, a postdoctoral researcher in Lora’s lab, said.

Lora focuses on the phenomena of atmospheric rivers — narrow, long columns of air transporting moisture from out of the tropics — that are often behind extreme precipitation events. His study of these water dynamics has helped track changes in Earth’s hydroclimate over time, Serena Scholz, first year postdoctoral student in Lora’s lab, noted.

While some of Lora’s work has contributed to the earth sciences community, his research has also taken him into the reaches of space. Lora entered college focused on the study of 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, most reliable climate models that we have for Titan,” according to Battalio. 

Lora has spearheaded atmospheric studies of Titan, the only other terrestrial body in the solar system with a stable body of liquid, and leads efforts to shed light on its atmospheric cycles.

“We basically try to understand what is going on in the climate of Titan, the atmosphere and how the surface and the atmosphere interact,” Lora said.

To that end, Lora’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 most recent publications provide crucial insights into Titan’s methane-saturated atmosphere. One such paper investigated a dynamic set of jet stream movements, better known as Rossby waves, that were responsible for months-long storms on Titan. 

Lora appreciates the collaborative, cross-planetary research efforts of his lab, noting that “it’s all about the same types of physics, maybe operating in slightly different environments or slightly different ways.” 

By exploring such a vast diversity of terrestrial bodies, the team can add valuable insights to our understanding of Earth. For example, Lora expects the parallels between Titan’s methane cycle and its water counterpart here on Earth to help scientists better understand the changes in our own climate.

“Oftentimes, we can sort of glean some ideas from one [terrestrial body] to inform the other,” Lora said.

The lab’s work will be put straight to use within the coming years. Lora is co-investigator of NASA’s 2027 Dragonfly mission, a project that will explore the chemistry and habitability of Titan. By providing insight and forecasts of local weather conditions, Lora’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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