Persistence Lifted the Clouds

Cumulus cloud expert Joanne Simpson took the weather world by storm. INTERVIEW: METEOROLOGIST

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

JOANNE SIMPSON's fight to enter the male-dominated science of meteorology sparked controversy in the 1940s. But today she's a major figure in the field. The first female president of the American Meteorological Society (AMS), Dr. Simpson is one of the world's foremost authorities on cumulus clouds and severe storms. She is also chief scientist for meteorology at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. She is now project scientist for a new satellite mission measuring rainfall over the global tropics.

``I've said for some time that I hoped to do more work with third-world countries, and this satellite is providing the opportunity,'' she says. ``Water resources and rain are among the most important concern of many third-world countries.''

When asked about the possibility of seeding clouds to increase rainfall, she says, ``I still believe it can be done. A very carefully evaluated project [in Northern Israel] has indicated increase by 15 percent. We're probably looking at that kind of fraction - and only in certain places. Some drought and desert areas have to look to other ways.''

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Research in this country on cloud seeding has fallen behind,'' she says. ``It's undergone a rather unfortunate decline in the belief that anyone can do it.'' There are still a few private projects here, but the scientific community ``has pretty much abandoned it.''

In her opinion, the experiments here weren't pursued long enough. Israel's project began in the 1950s, she points out.

Simpson says the most important thing we've learned about cumulus clouds - aside from the fact that they grow up to be giants responsible for most of our severe weather - is that they also play an extremely important role in driving the large-scale circulation of the atmosphere. She says we now understand better how the shifting positions of cloud systems have far-reaching impacts, and that this knowledge motivates further study, including satellite studies that can measure rainfall over the oceans.

Speaking of rainfall, today's weather forecasts are much more accurate than the public realizes, she says - and will soon become even better. Turning to her career-long interest in severe storms (she headed NASA's Severe Storms branch for several years), she says ``a great deal has been accomplished'' in the ability to detect storms in their early stages and make short-range forecasts.

In the past, the lack of an adequate observational network made it more difficult to predict severe storms. But better communication and more sophisticated equipment are making forecasts of severe weather more accurate. ``You don't have to overwarn as much now,'' she says, ``because you can pinpoint better what is going to occur.''

Simpson says the public also has learned to respond better to storm warnings, as evidenced by the reaction to Hurricane Hugo this fall. ``It was amazing that with all the damage inflicted by Hugo, very few lives were lost. People have finally learned to respond when the forecasters say, `Get out of there.' They don't sit on the beach or in their shorefront condos having a hurricane party - the way a lot of people did in 1969 when Camille hit.'' Some 256 people died along the Gulf Coast in the storm 30 years ago; 74 lost their lives in Hugo.

Simpson attributes this improvement primarily to the work of Neil Frank, former director of the National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables, Fla.

``He spent so many years crusading, going up and down the coastline warning that all this building on the shore front is a sitting duck for disaster. And the work he did for a decade or more - telling people that these storms are serious, not to fool around, to get out - certainly paid off.''

Simpson says some storms are more ``well behaved'' and predictable than others in terms of following a straight track without too many ``wiggles and wobbles,'' and Hugo was one of these. It intensified as it came ashore, she says, but by then the endangered areas had been evacuated.

As for the popular idea that the weatherman (or woman) is usually wrong, she says, this is largely a misconception.

``People remember much more when they are hit by an unexpected storm or when one that is forecast doesn't materialize, but the forecast is accurate most of the time.'' Furthermore, she says, the increase in the number of weather monitoring stations plus the continued development of more sophisticated equipment puts the US ``on the threshhold'' of even more significant improvement in accuracy.

Simpson, in Boston to attend meetings at AMS headquarters, reflects on her career of nearly a half century in a field that has been dominated by men.

Born in Boston in 1923, her father was aviation editor of the old Boston Herald. Her mother, an early campaigner for women's rights - worked in both journalism and public relations at a time when it was rare for a wife and mother to have a profession.

An early introduction to flying led Simpson to her interest in meteorology.

``My father often had rides in those early planes, and sometimes he took me with him,'' she recalled. ``I remember going up when I was just 5 or 6 years old.''

As a teenager she worked for the Massachusetts State Aeronautics office, and learned to fly. When she entered the University of Chicago in 1940 she continued taking flying lessons, which meant learning some meteorology. She became interested in the subject and looked into it at the university, where a new course was being offered to provide teachers for military forecasters.

``My interest in aviation was certainly a contributing factor, but what really made this a reality was the war,'' Simpson says. But when the war ended, the old double standard reappeared.

``It was like Rosie the Riveter,'' she recalls. ```Thanks folks, now back to the mops.'''

By this time, however, Simpson knew meteorology was her career choice, so she acquired a master's degree and began work toward a PhD. Opposed by faculty members who felt women did not belong in the field, and denied fellowship support, she persisted on her own, and in 1949 became the first woman ever to earn a doctorate in meteorology.

Since then she has established an impressive academic and scientific reputation, including the coveted Rossby Research Medal of the AMS. Her prominence has made the path easier for women who have followed her.

``Any comparison between the way it was when I started and the way it is now is like comparing the covered wagon with a jet plane,'' she says. ``But this doesn't mean that women don't still have obstacles to overcome.

``American women just assume things are going to keep getting better. But I tell them, `Don't ever take progress and freedom for granted.' Sometimes you have to fight just to keep the opportunities you have.''

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