NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., is home to hundreds of dedicated scientists, engineers and project support staff. At Goddard, some of the most cutting-edge Earth science innovation and research takes place, and some of that cutting-edge innovation has earned a Goddard scientist the 2014 Vega Medal.
The Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geography awards the Vega Medal every three years to a person who has shown excellence in the fields of physical geography, exploration or archaeology. Climate scientist Compton Tucker received the award for his contributions to remote sensing, the study of Earth using satellite data.
Tucker has studied plant life on Earth for the past 33 years, including photosynthesis, global agricultural production, land cover, tropical deforestation and the prediction of disease outbreaks connected to changes in climate. His work is also used for famine early warning and desert locust control.
Tucker has worked with global satellite data from NASA and NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, to measure photosynthesis from space. Before Tucker and his coworkers started daily observations of land vegetation in 1981, no one had measured global land photosynthesis from space over time. A few years earlier, Tucker worked with NOAA to reconfigure their instruments that made space-based study of photosynthesis possible in the first place.
The work of Tucker's team has led to a 33-years-and-counting data set that is invaluable for scientists studying Earth's climate.
"The consistent and well-defined observations that can only be done by orbiting satellites have provided us with a unique understanding of the interaction and changes happening among the air, land and water systems here on Earth," said Tucker. "Over the last 30-plus years, we have observed how well plants are converting light energy to chemical energy, especially at higher northern latitudes, where cold temperatures limit plant growth. We have also seen how the growing season is starting earlier and lasting longer. Only through three decades of data from Earth-viewing satellites do we have this record of global vegetation through time."
"I thought the email notifying me of the award was a prank," Tucker said. "I'm very happy about the Vega Medal because of all the NASA Goddard people who make possible Earth science satellite data and its use. My coworkers and I are at the end of a long line of dedicated NASA civil servants and contract employees who make our work possible." Carl XVI Gustaf, the king of Sweden, will give Tucker the award on April 14 at the Royal Castle in Stockholm, Sweden.
Tucker attended Colorado State University, where he received his doctorate in 1975.
Tucker has received other awards for his satellite studies of Earth. These include the Henry Shaw Medal from the Missouri Botanical Garden, NASA's Exceptional Research Medal, the National Air and Space Museum Trophy, the NASA-U.S. Geological Survey Pecora Award, the Galathea Medal from the Royal Danish Geographical Society, and the Mongolian Medal of Friendship. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland and a consulting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania.
Arctic explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld received the first Vega Medal in 1881. The prize shares the name of the vessel Nordenskiöld took through the Northeast Passage. That 1878-1880 expedition was the first successful full trip through the Arctic shipping path along Russia's northern coast. Other award recipients have included explorers Henry Morton Stanley, Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen and Roy Chapman Andrews; paleontologist and archaeologist Louis Leakey; ethnologist and adventurer Thor Heyerdahl; and climate scientists Willi Dansgaard, John Imbrie and Lonnie Thompson.