Physical scientist Michael Pavolonis selected for 2015 NOAA David Johnson Award

November 17, 2014 | Sarah Witman



CONTACT: Michael Pavolonis,, 608-263-9597;

Jeff Key,, 608-263-2605

Physical Scientist Michael Pavolonis selected for 2015 NOAA David Johnson Award

MADISON —Michael Pavolonis, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) physical scientist based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies (CIMSS), has been selected to receive the 2015 NOAA David Johnson Award.

Sponsored by the nonprofit National Space Club, in memoriam of the first assistant administrator of NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service (NESDIS), the David Johnson Award is annually presented to a young professional in recognition of outstanding, innovative uses of Earth-observation satellite data for operations, in order to predict atmospheric, oceanic, or terrestrial conditions.

Pavolonis, who earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in atmospheric and oceanic sciences from UW-Madison, developed an automated, satellite-based, global volcanic eruption detection system to improve the timeliness and accuracy of volcanic ash cloud advisories. Information from the volcanic eruption detection system is already being used by the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers operated by NOAA, reports ASPB chief Jeff Key in the nominating letter, and has been “extremely useful” in the international operational and research communities as well, adds U.S. Geological Survey volcanic ash expert Marianne Guffanti.

“Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers are the front line of action in warning about volcanic-cloud hazards, and Mike’s quantitative retrievals, corresponding training materials, and visits are in high demand,” writes Guffanti, commending the NOAA/CIMSS volcano imagery site on its easy access for users.

Earlier this year, Pavolonis briefed the United States House and Senate as well as NOAA senior leadership on the importance of satellites in mitigating volcanic hazards. He stressed that the extremely large volumes of satellite data collected must be transformed into actionable information using complex, science-driven, computer algorithms.

“[Pavolonis’] extremely fruitful endeavors include basic research, algorithm development, testing, training, publications, and international collaboration with many users throughout the globe,” Key states.

In addition to spearheading the volcanic ash work, Pavolonis led the development of ProbSevere: a short-term probabilistic severe weather prediction model that determines the likelihood that a given developing convective storm will produce severe weather in the next 60 minutes.

When the NOAA/CIMSS team demonstrated ProbSevere at NOAA’s Hazardous Weather Testbed this summer, the model added at least 10 minutes of lead time to severe weather warnings more than half of the time.

Key calls Pavolonis’ methods for converting satellite data into usable hazard-mitigation tools “cutting-edge,” and added that these developments will improve preparation for volcanic eruptions and severe convective weather.

“I want to emphasize [Pavolonis’] groundbreaking work on the ProbSevere product,” writes Jeffrey Craven, science and operations officer for the Milwaukee/Sullivan National Weather Service Forecast Office, one of the first units to test ProbSevere. “This product truly represents the future of forecast and warning products.”

That Pavolonis has ties to CIMSS brings the significance of the award full circle, as David Johnson, working with CIMSS founder Verner Suomi, facilitated the establishment of NOAA’s partnership with UW-Madison in the 1970s – the very beginnings of CIMSS.