Paul Miller Becomes 4th Oceanography & Coastal Sciences Professor to Win NSF Career Award

February 01, 2023

A man stands in front of a television with satellite imagery of the Earth on it

NSF CAREER Award winner Paul Miller explains the Saharan Air Layer, a phenomenon where masses of dust gather in the atmosphere over the Saharan Desert and travel across the Atlantic Ocean.

BATON ROUGE -- Paul Miller, an assistant professor in the Department of Oceanography & Coastal Sciences, or DOCS, was recently awarded the National Science Foundation Early Career Development Award, also known as the NSF CAREER Award.  

This prestigious award is given to faculty members who demonstrate the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education while early in their career. Miller, who studies coastal meteorology, will use his to conduct research into the effects of a phenomenon known as the Saharan Air Layer.

Every year, masses of dust gather in the atmosphere over the Saharan Desert, creating the Saharan Air Layer, otherwise known as the SAL. These masses of dust travel across the Atlantic Ocean, sometimes as far as North America, before dissipating.  

The presence of this dust has been connected to the development of droughts in the Caribbean.  In 2015, a year with multiple strong Saharan dust outbreaks, Puerto Rico experienced its driest-ever 4 month period, from April to July of that year.

Miller will focus his research on Puerto Rico as he uses his award to examine the possible connections between the SAL and droughts in the region.

“Is the dust just a visual cue that there's an elevated hot, dry layer of air here? Or is the dust actually doing something unique to the atmosphere in which it is embedded?” Miller said. “That's what this project is going to tease that out. Is it helping steer the trajectory of the Saharan Air Layer? Those are things that no one's really looked at too much.”

Two pictures of the LSU lakes, one from when the Saharan Dust was present

A view of the LSU Lakes when Saharan dust traveled to Baton Rouge (top) as compared to a normal day.

– Photo: Paul Miller

The NSF CAREER Award also supports a significant outreach component. In addition to his work with the multi-institutional research group SECARIBE, Miller is looking at the potential for an intensive summer field course, where students would spend a week on campus, learning about the global climate, water resources and other related topics, and then spend a week in Puerto Rico, learning about the water resources of the island.

“Congratulations to Dr. Miller on his award. His research on the Saharan Air Layer provides an excellent example of the wide-ranging scope research being conducted in the Department of Oceanography & Coastal Studies,” said Kam-Biu Liu, chair of DOCS. “This work with the SAL will not only provide more insight into drought and other climate-related phenomena, the learning and research experiences created by the grant will give students a unique opportunity to further their understanding of coastal meteorology.”

Miller also hopes to use his funding to connect this research to the broader issue of aerosols and particulate matter in the atmosphere, an issue whose effects can be felt locally and around the world. “There’s a lot of human health impacts,” he said. 

He also noted that, while the SAL’s trip across the Atlantic to the Caribbean is well documented, the dust can make it even further than that. In 2022, it was visible in Baton Rouge.  

Miller is the latest faculty CC&E faculty member to receive the NSF CAREER Award. Assistant Professor Matt Hiatt received it in 2022, Associate Professor Junhong Liang in 2020, and Sam Bentley, then an assistant professor, in 2001.


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