Donald R. Johnson, 1930-2017

Donald R. Johnson, a professor emeritus of atmospheric science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an authority on the global circulation of the atmosphere, died in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Apr. 13.

Donald R. Johnson.

An internationally known expert in atmospheric energetics, the global circulation of the atmosphere, and the utilization of advanced research models for analysis and prediction, Johnson was also instrumental in developing a teaching strategy to help students gain a better understanding of the Earth system.

“Don was recognized worldwide for his research, but he was equally committed to his students,” says Steve Ackerman, interim director of the UW-Madison Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC). “His innovative education initiatives were recognized with teaching awards and his development of an Earth system science education curriculum broke new ground.”

Johnson harnessed the potential of emerging scientific technologies – such as the Man-computer Interactive Data Access System (McIDAS), a revolutionary satellite data visualization tool developed at SSEC in the 1970s – for educational purposes. Starting in 1981, Johnson, along with colleagues from SSEC and meteorology, led the development of a series of video modules for teaching meteorology. Using visual imagery to see and explain atmospheric properties pushed the boundaries of traditional teaching methods in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. More than 100 universities and organizations worldwide adopted the modules.

As a result of this work, Johnson was offered a position with the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) in the early 1990s. He secured NASA funding to develop the first-ever curriculum for Earth system science education.

Johnson’s research and teaching interests fostered collaborations with scientists at SSEC where he also served as its associate director from 1977 until 1999. In addition, he served as interim director of SSEC’s Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies (CIMSS) from 1997 until 1999.

Johnson received his master’s degree in 1960 and his PhD in 1965 from UW-Madison, where he taught in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences for 30 years.

His commitment to education was evidenced in his continuing mentorship of former students and professional colleagues, many of whom went on to assume leadership roles in meteorological agencies around the world.

Throughout his career, Johnson held leadership positions on numerous scientific committees with the National Research Council, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, the National Science Foundation, NASA, the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, among many others.

His awards include those from the American Meteorological Society and the American Geophysical Union in recognition of his excellence in education and the Charles Franklin Brooks Award. Johnson was a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society, its past president, and honorary member, as well as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In 2015, Johnson was honored with a named symposium at the Annual Meeting of the American Meteorological Society.

Johnson supervised more than 50 masters and PhD students at the UW-Madison and published more than 80 peer-reviewed papers over the course of his career. He was actively engaged in writing until the time of his death.

There will be a celebration of life in Madison at a date yet to be determined.