75 Years of ATMOS
Following World War II, scientifically based understanding of the atmosphere had several drivers. There was the need for government agencies to ensure protection of lives and property; the need to improve agriculture, water resources, aviation and surface transportation; and new opportunities provided by live TV weather forecasts to inform the public. In the ‘70s and ‘80s a second modernization wave led to improved weather models and surface and satellite observations that increased expectations for scientists to have advanced university undergraduate and graduate training. Atmospheric science is a field that continues to develop new technologies, bringing to bear what we know and continue to learn about numerical methods, computer sciences, physics and chemistry, among other disciplines.
Today, the U’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences (ATMOS), formerly the Department of Meteorology, is the leading program of weather and climate-related research, education, and public service in the Intermountain West. With its 75th anniversary this year, we are reminded that this is a story about intrepid pioneers in the field and expansion to embrace studying environmental phenomena on spatial scales from the entire globe to tiny particles and on temporal scales from centuries to microseconds. It’s a story about the men and women who built the buildings, developed the curricula, and conducted research, training, and service relevant to residents in Utah, the nation, and beyond.
Thank you for joining us in recalling, experiencing in the moment, and re-committing to the work of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah.
Past is Prologue
After serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps in the Pacific Theatre during WWII, Vern Hales returned to Utah in 1946 to teach meteorology courses at the U in the physics department. In what must have been very limited spare time, while founding the department at the U, he completed his doctorate at UCLA in 1952 on atmospheric radiative transfer. “My interest became cloud seeding at the nearby airport,” he recalled. “I had many opportunities to experiment with different techniques of clearing the sky for airplanes.”
Hales was not the only one to emerge from the crucible of war to become an atmospheric scientist at the U. One of the department’s longest serving faculty members (1957-1986) was Donald R. Dickson who received his B.S. and M.S. degrees from ATMOS in 1950 and 1953, respectively. Dickson’s service in the Army Air Corps led to injuries in the line of duty for which he received three Bronze Star medals and was recognized for his service in the European African Middle East Theatre.
Following Hales, Dickson took over the position of chair from 1963 to 1972, a time of exponential growth at the U. By 1950 student enrollment had more than doubled since the end of the War, then more than doubled again by 1970. A new campus was called for by President Ray Olpin who pushed an aggressive initiative through which ninety buildings would be planned, designed and constructed between 1945 and 1975.
The Browning Building
In 1971, during Dickson’s tenure as chair, the U saw the construction and opening of the William Browning Mines and Mineral Industries Building, the new home of ATMOS and much of the College of Mines and Earth Sciences (CMES). Later, the nearby Intermountain Network Scientific Computer Center (INSCC) building also opened and currently accommodates ATMOS offices, classrooms, and a lecture hall.
Before and during the move to the Browning, the connection of ATMOS to UCLA continued when a research scientist at the Los Angeles campus, Shih-Kung Kao, was recruited in 1960. He was department chair from 1973 until his untimely death in 1981. Kao led research on many aspects of atmospheric dynamics, including the transport of fallout from open-air atomic tests, of which the last one occurred in Nevada in 1962. While Kao was Chair, research funding increased substantively, and the graduate program expanded. In addition, the Air Force’s officer training and degree programs, already underway, led to the department’s largest undergraduate enrollments in its history.
As the program grew, Dr. Hales hired Aylmer H. Thompson. “A. H.” as he was known, who also worked during the late 1950s on a Ph.D. at UCLA. Additional connections between ATMOS and UCLA might suggest a conspiracy of sorts, but the recruitment of Jan and Julia Nogues Paegle who had met at the California campus was all above board. In fact, one of the reasons the Pageles chose the U was because of the University’s accommodation to hire married researchers as couples. Julia recalls how the U was one of the nodes within the first nationwide computer network known as ARPANET that predated the Internet. Now professors emeriti, the Paegles mentored dozens of doctoral and masters degree students. While their contributions are noteworthy across all aspects of research, teaching, and service, they energized the department in new directions with tropical and Southern Hemisphere research that brought many students and visitors from South America.
The arrival of faculty member Kuo-Nan Liou in 1975 accelerated the department’s growth. As an international leader in radiative transfer and cloud process research, he established the largest research group in the department’s history, involving staff, research faculty, postdoctoral researchers, and graduate students. He served as department chair immediately before reversing the flow of faculty exchange from UCLA to Utah by heading to UCLA himself in 1997. Deservedly, Liou received many awards from his peers for his work at the U and at UCLA, including the American Meteorological Society Charney and Rossby Awards, and recognition from the American Geophysical Union, National Academy of Engineering, and Chinese Academy of Sciences.
In 1977, two years following Liou’s arrival, the faculty was joined by Norihiko Fukuta, a world leader in cloud microphysics research with a state-of-the-art cloud chamber on the 8th floor of the Browning. Poor wintertime air quality episodes in northern Utah that are often accompanied by supercooled fog led Fukuta to innovative research in the late 1980s to seed fog layers at the Salt Lake City airport and elsewhere with liquid carbon dioxide droplets.
The College helped to expand the department by hiring prominent scientists as chairs in 1986 and 1999. John (Jack) Geisler was pried away from Florida to become ATMOS chair in 1982 and continued in the position until his retirement in 1996. His research and teaching centered on large-scale dynamics in the tropics and global modeling, and his long tenure as chair provided the foundation for the department’s growth in research, teaching, and service pertaining to Utah and around the globe. Staff emerita Leslie Allaire remembers frequent trips Geisler made to Brazil with the Paegles to study the impacts of tropical sea surface temperature variations (El Niño/La Niña) on weather around the globe. There were also Geisler’s tales, she says, of spearing piranha in the Amazon.
Recruited from Texas A&M in 1999, Edward Zipser served as chair until 2005. Zipser has the record for being an academic with the longest involvement (1960-2022) in aircraft field programs. His extensive contributions to the field have been recognized, including being the department’s second recipient of the American Meteorological Society’s Carl-Gustaf Rossby Research Medal.
The first of many faculty brought to the U during Geisler’s fifteen-year tenure as chair was Dale Durran (subsequently followed by John Horel, Steven Krueger, James Steenburgh, and Gerald Mace). Dale’s research on terrain-flow interactions began at the U and continued at the University of Washington after his departure in 1997. Geisler’s era encompassed expanded opportunities relying on federal research funding from NSF, DOE, NOAA, and NASA to improve numerical models and analyze satellite imagery leading to improved understanding of year-to-year variations and long-term trends in the climate system. Coincidentally, the advent of the Weather Channel with its around-the-clock updates of local and distant weather along with weather information at everyone’s fingertips via the internet have helped raise the public’s and prospective students’ awareness of career opportunities in the field.
Atmospheric scientists, often found staring at a computer screen, live for the great outdoors. That they spend a good deal of their spare time craning their necks at the sky and taking photos of clouds are indicators of their passion for knowing what’s going up and what’s coming down.
Currently, the department has research programs that run the gamut of winter weather from snapping photos of individual snowflakes to simulating precipitation in the Himalayas. Sensors onboard light rail cars and electric buses monitor asthma-inducing air quality in the Salt Lake Valley while other equipment tracks dust plumes rising from the shrinking Great Salt Lake. Studies are underway examining clouds over the Arctic and South Atlantic as well as hurricane genesis. Providing real-time data and graphics to government personnel fighting wildfires and improving models that simulate the smoke from those wildfires is increasingly important for the residents of the West, as is the measurement and evaluations of the chemical make-up of polluted air during the state’s notorious winter temperature inversions.
With the Twitter handle, @ProfessorPowder, James “Jim” Steenburgh is a Fulbright Scholar, author and blogger at the whimsically-named Wasatch Weather Weenies. He studies how storms interact with downstream topography to create optimal snow fall and the “Greatest Snow on Earth,” key to Utah’s winter sports economy.
West of the Wasatch, Kevin Perry travels across the lakebed of the Great Salt Lake using a specially designed fat tire bicycle pulling a trailer crammed with instruments. He and his colleagues, including research faculty Sebastian Hoch, are currently testing how much wind energy it takes to disturb the playa’s crust of the terminal lake and move the resulting dust which now contains toxins like arsenic into the urbanized Wasatch Front.
To assist the National Weather Service in its mission to protect lives and property, MesoWest team led by current chair John Horel has acquired and distributed over the internet environmental data available publicly from tens of thousands of locations around the nation. Cloud-based software has expanded on the tools available from MesoWest to monitor weather conditions for protection of lives and property from hazardous weather and for widespread commercial applications. The department’s reputation as a premier program in mountain meteorology has now been bolstered as operator of Storm Peak Laboratory located at the top of the Steamboat Springs Ski Area in Colorado. The facility is one of only a handful of high elevation weather research labs in the world and is under the direction of Gannet Hallar who joined the ATMOS faculty in 2016.
Our history is not simply about the academic faculty and its leadership. The department currently houses excellent research faculty, instructors, staff, post-doctoral researchers, and hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students. Visit atmos.utah.edu for a more complete listing of faculty, staff and students who have played and continue to play prominent roles in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences.
Whither Weather Now?
The next revolutions affecting weather forecasting will likely involve greater reliance on AI/machine learning tools and probabilistic numerical model guidance. Forecasting the exact high temperature tomorrow will continue to become less important than communicating accurately the risks and uncertainties of hazardous weather and climate variability and trends such as floods, droughts and heat waves.
The 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics accelerated mountain weather research in the department. Installing weather sensors at venues, running high-resolution weather forecast models, ATMOS student venue volunteers, and daily weather briefings with the local Olympic Committee were ATMOS’s high-profile activities as scientists partnering with private and federal forecasters to embody the games’ motto to “Light the fire within.”
Whether the capital city will again host the Olympics in 2030 or ‘34 and involve weather support from ATMOS remains uncertain. What is certain is that the department is ready for its next seventy-five years. There’s the newly established Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy headed up by atmospheric scientist John Lin and forest ecologist William “Bill” Anderegg. The Center epitomizes the drive towards multidisciplinary science to address seemingly intractable issues surrounding climate change with the onus of providing data-driven deliverables to policy makers.
Finally, in 2025 ATMOS will relocate into facilities on lower campus, part of the Applied Sciences Project. The Department of Physics and Astronomy will also be tenants as will the Wilkes Center alongside teaching labs and classrooms wherein virtually every STEM student at the U will eventually intersect for a course, a practicum or a lecture. Embedded in the new building will be an expansion of the Science Research Initiative (SRI) wherein first-semester science students find themselves in a lab or in the field (or both) to learn by doing.
A catalyst for much of the multidisciplinary approach to fundamental and applied science is the merger of the College of Mines and Earth Sciences, where ATMOS is situated, with the College of Science. Seven departments and one school will now be more closely aligned administratively, pedagogically and in cross-pollinating research, teaching, and service. One of the first examples to have emerged from the new alignment is the establishment of a new major and minor of Earth & Environmental Science: a robust mix of atmospheric science, geology and ecology that will also intersect with virtually every department in the merged College.
What's up out there?
The simple answer to this question is a lot has happened in the department and is continuing to happen today. From dark times following a world war, through new innovations of technology, theory and research, the future will be sunny. As we like to say here: Sky’s the limit.