Berkeley Lab soil scientist Margaret Torn receives Presidential Early Career Award


BERKELEY, CA -- In a White House ceremony held Thursday, September 9, 2004 in the nation's capital, Margaret Torn, a scientist with the Earth Sciences Division of the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers for the year 2003. The awards were presented by John Marburger, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Torn, a biogeochemist, is honored for her innovative research on climate change and the terrestrial carbon cycle. She is one of four researchers from DOE's Office of Science and three from the Department's Office of Defense Programs to receive this year's award, among a total of 57 recipients from eight government agencies. The award is given annually to honor and support the extraordinary achievements of young professionals at the outset of their independent research careers.

"The work of these young scientists and engineers is an excellent example of the kind of innovative and forward-looking research that our nation needs to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century," said Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. "Their work will help to contribute to our energy security and independence far into the future."

"Margaret brings distinction to Berkeley Lab and to its program in climate change and carbon management," said Laboratory Director Steve Chu. "The work of her and her colleagues will be critical as the world confronts the challenges of developing a carbon-neutral, sustainable energy economy in the coming years. In addition, one of the questions she is addressing -- the role of feedback mechanisms -- lies at the heart of how we can accurately predict climate change."

Of her research, Torn says, "Most important, I am working to characterize the feedbacks between climate change and ecosystems -- as sources and sinks of greenhouse gases and how the surface of the land affects things like albedo," the degree to which solar radiation is reflected. "These are key factors in radiative forcing, the basis of global warming."

Torn heads the Carbon Project for DOE's Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Program (ARM), a team of eight scientists plus support staff based at Berkeley Lab who gather data at ARM's Southern Great Plains site in Oklahoma. Equipped with an instrument suite designed by Torn, this location has been called "possibly the best-instrumented site for regional carbon studies in the world." The resulting data, bridging scales from individual crops to the middle of the continent and from the ground surface to the stratosphere, have led to improvements in regional and global computer climate models.

In studies sponsored by the Office of Science, Torn has assessed DOE strategies for carbon sequestration in soils by studying the lifetime of fine roots, plant matter decomposition rates, and the persistence of organic carbon in the soil in temperate forests. Using measurements of carbon-14 and other isotopes, Torn has overturned previous assumptions about the amount of carbon pumped underground by root growth.

Since 2001, Torn has been head of Berkeley Lab's Climate Change and Carbon Management Program, coordinating the efforts of climate researchers in the Lab's Earth Sciences Division with members of the Engineering and Environmental Energy Technology Divisions and the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC). Under Torn's initiative, program members realized the first regional climate and terrestrial ecosystem supercomputer model that couples the land surface to the mesoscale; as a consequence, Berkeley Lab's climate-change simulations have achieved unprecedented fine resolution.

Torn's previous research has taken her around the world, from Hawaiian rainforests to Alaskan tundra and from the Sierra Nevada to the Russian steppe. She maintains collaborations in Russia, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, and was the invited keynote speaker at a major European Union scientific meeting on soil conservation.

In California, Torn has led state-supported studies to assess effects of global warming on wildfire danger, and on threats to wildlife, agriculture, and public health. Says Torn, "We need to understand what things can change unexpectedly, given how quickly climate may change. And we need to learn how ecosystem processes may amplify the warming we have started. The time for prevention is now."

Previous Berkeley Lab winners of the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers include Abby Dernburg of the Life Sciences Division, nominated by the National Institutes of Health for 2002, who received her award in a ceremony delayed until earlier this year, and Roya Maboudian of the Materials Sciences Division, who received the 1998 award. The Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers were established in 1996 by President Bill Clinton and are the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on scientists and engineers at the beginning of their independent careers.

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