UCLA Spotlight


John Roskovensky, Atmospheric Sciences

  • By Jacqueline Tasch, Patricia Jordan
  • Published Jan 1, 2002 8:00 AM

Singer Joni Mitchell may have been first to claim she "looked at clouds from both sides now." But her "up and down" views were metaphorical. John Roskovensky has done the real thing: looked up at clouds in the sky, and down through the eyes of orbiting satellites.

A graduate student in atmospheric sciences, Roskovensky is part of Professor K.N. Liou's Radiation and Remote Sensing Group, a world-renowned team of cloud researchers. Of particular interest to Roskovensky are cirrus clouds, thin accumulations of ice crystals five to six miles over the earth, which we see as wispy or feathery streaks on a clear day — if we see them at all.

Because they are relatively inaccessible, cirrus clouds haven't been studied nearly as much as the lower-flying, water-bearing clouds. But it is possible that cirrus clouds enhance the notorious greenhouse effect. Cirrus clouds let in "a lot of visible light, which heats up the earth, and they absorb a great deal of the infrared radiation the earth emits, so they have a warming effect," Roskovensky explains. Perhaps ominously, cirrus clouds seem to be "increasing, due to air travel and jet fuel and contrails, especially around big cities with busy airports."

Roskovensky has been interested in clouds and weather since he was a boy growing up in Chicago. He was particularly taken with the powerful thunder and lightning storms that "would spring up from nothing" on a summer evening.

But when he headed to college, it was to study mathematics and computer science. A stint in the Peace Corps, in rural Swaziland, helped him discover a passion for teaching. After earning a master's in education, Roskovensky taught both in the U.S. and in Belgium.

It was in Brussels that he made the decision to pursue his interest in weather. UCLA attracted him because it's among the top schools for atmospheric sciences, offering a full range of concentrations: "an opportunity to see everything, because I hadn't narrowed down an exact field." UCLA also promised relief from the dismal weather typical of Brussels. "I know it sounds shallow," Roskovensky says, "but I wanted to be in a place with good weather."

He received UCLA's Neiburger Award as Teaching Assistant of the Year in 1998-1999 and his master's degree in 1999. Now beginning his second year on Liou's team, Roskovensky is trying to narrow down a dissertation focus. His first step is looking for ways to sort the data that the satellites deliver to UCLA's computers. Because the satellites look straight down through many layers, it can be difficult to assess exactly what you're seeing, Roskovensky says.

Joni Mitchell ends her stanza on clouds this way: "It's cloud illusions I recall. I really don't know clouds at all."

But Roskovensky plans to find out.