Pieternel Levelt new director of prestigious American lab for atmospheric research

In March, Pieternel Levelt, who currently works as professor of Remote Sensing at Delft University of Technology and head of R&D Satellite Observations at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI), will embark on her very own American dream. She will move to Boulder, Colorado, to become the new director of one of the laboratories of the prestigious National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). She will replace the recently deceased Dutch Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen. “It is a truly unique opportunity for me to fill his shoes.”
Pieternel Levelt, source: TU Delft

What will you be doing in the United States?

“I will become the director of ACOM, which is short for Atmospheric Chemistry Observations & Modelling. This lab was formed during the time that the Dutch Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen was studying the hole in the ozone layer. The ACOM is one of seven NCAR labs and, globally, a leading laboratory in the field of atmospheric chemistry, which is my area of expertise.”

How did they find you?

“I am fairly familiar with NCAR. In 1997, I was there as a visiting scientist. Since then, I have been back many times in my role as scientific director of the Dutch satellite instrument OMI and co-initiator of Tropomi. In 2018, I spent several months at NCAR during my sabbatical. They recruited me for my experience with satellite instruments and international collaboration, as well as the added value of my European network in the field of remote sensing.”

You are no stranger to America. On Sunday 10 January, you accepted an award from the American Meteorological Society?

“I did, on behalf of the entire team behind the satellite instrument OMI, which studies the composition of the atmosphere. We received the award for our execution of this project, particularly with regard to our collaboration on an international scale. In its report, the AMS jury writes that this collaboration had led to innovative satellite data that are invaluable to air quality research and applications in the field of public health.”

Speaking of collobaration; will you still be working together with Delft University of Technology, the KNMI and other Dutch institutes once you start your new job?

“Absolutely. The lab I will be running is ahead of the KNMI when it comes to modelling and using measurements conducted on the ground and on board airplaines. The Netherlands can learn from that. On the other hand, the Netherlands has extensive experience with and knowledge of satellite instruments. If the KNMI, TNO, SRON and Delft University of Technology start working together even more closely, the Netherlands will have a lof to offer when it comes to using satellite instruments for atmospheric research.”

How will ACOM's atmospheric research develop under your leadership?

“It is not my intention to walk in as the new director and immediately shake things up. First, I want to really get to know the staff and listen to what they have to say. Nevertheless, I do envision a number of developments. A closer working relationship between the United States and the Netherlands in the field of atmospheric chemistry is one of them. Another is a strong focus on machine learning, because the smart combination of data can prove invaluable for our research. In the coming years, I also want to initiate research of the atmosphere over Africa. The African economy and its population are growing. After the western world, China and India, Africa will be the next continent to face major problems with its air quality. It is important to pay attention to that, in close collaboration with the African population.”

Your area of expertise will become even more important in the future?

“The Paris Agreement is about much more than carbon emissions alone. We know that methane plays an important role in climate change. The same goes for other substances found in the atmosphere, such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide. Atmospheric chemistry is a field that will allow us to develop good climate policy in the years to come. Satellite data, including those gathered by Dutch instruments, play a key role in this process.”