Persistence Lifted the Clouds
Cumulus cloud expert Joanne Simpson took the weather world by storm. INTERVIEW: METEOROLOGIST
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.Skip to next paragraph
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``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.''
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.