Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Meteorological Pioneers

It is Pioneer Day in Utah, a state holiday providing yet another opportunity to play with fireworks and spark wildfires.  Let's be careful out there!

The Wasatch Weather Weenies will celebrate by working, banking "comp time" for a future powder day, and remembering two of our pioneers.

The first is Horace-Benedict de Saussure (1740–1799) who was a Professor of Philosophy in Geneva Academy (Switzerland), the second person to climb Mt. Blanc, and the first person to establish a temporary mountain meteorology station.

Source: Barry (1978)
As summarized by Barry (1978), de Saussure worked to explain why it was cold in mountain areas.  He developed a heliothermometer and was the first to show that solar radiation increased with altitude.   This showed that mountain areas were not cold because of a lack of solar radiation, but because
"they are surrounded by and chilled by air which is constantly cold.  This air is cold because it cannot be strongly heated, neither by the rays of the sun, due to its transparancy, nor by the surface of the earth due to distance separating them (de Suassure, 1779–96, Vol. 2, chap. 35, p. 932)."
De Saussure was a world traveler, and his observations of differing tree line heights in the Peruvian Cordillera and on Mt. Blanc led him to conclude that temperature, not air density, controlled vegetation growth at high altitudes.  Given his many accomplishments in meteorological instrumentation, mountain meteorology, and glacial studies, Barry (1978) christens him as "the first mountain meteorologist.

The second is Norbert Untersteiner (1926–2012), who I only recently learned passed away on March 14.

Source: Arctic Sea Ice Blog/
University of Washington Polar Science Center
Copyright Pending
I first met Norbert in 1989 when I joined the graduate program of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington where he was department chair.  He was a kind and gentle man, who always asked about my ski adventures.  At the time, he was in his mid-60s and I, like so many clueless youth, simply assumed he must have been that age his whole life.  I knew he was a pioneer in sea-ice physics (see his remarkable professional accomplishments here and here), but beyond that was clueless.

Then, late in my graduate career, he decided to give us graduate students a glimpse or two into his youth, presenting a slide show on his 1954 trip a scientific member of an expedition deep into the Karkoram.  Prof. Mike Wallace has a great slide show describing Norbert here, that includes a slide that makes it obvious why Norbert was selected for the expedition.

Source: Mike Wallace, University of Washington
Norbert's work wasn't always in the mountains, but with a spirit like that, he earns recognition on this Pioneer Day.

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