Interview With Dr C. H. B. Priestley


Australiaa land of paradox. Sixth largest country in the world with its 7.7 million square kilometres, it is the lowest and flattest continental land mass and yet among the last to be developed; one of the most sparsely populated countries and yet highly urbanized. It is dry; the average annual rainfall is only 47 cm compared with a mean of 72 cm for the Earth's land surfaces as a whole.

Melbourne is a modern cosmopolitan city, running a close second to Sydney as Australia's largest. It is renowned for its theatres and its restaurants serving diverse ethnic dishes and a variety of wines.

Dr Charles Henry Brian Priestley, known to his friends and colleagues simply as 'Bill', lives in an attractive and spacious apartment in the inner suburbs of Melbourne. Standing about two metres tall, he greeted the Editor of the WMO Bulletin with his customary smile.


Dr C. H. B. Priestley







Dr C. H. B. Priestley

Clearly his enthusiasm for golf keeps him in excellent form now that he no longer indulges in the more vigorous sports of hockey and cricket which used to be his passion. Actually he was still dressed for the part in shorts and knee-length stockings. He explained that they had moved in from the house they used to have by the sea when their children were young so as to benefit from a better public transport service to concerts, theatres, and gastronomic delights.

'Bill' Priestley was born at Highgate in northern London in 1915. He graduated with first class honours in applied mathematics from Cambridge University in 1937, his fields of specialization being hydrodynamics and thermodynamics. At the same time he picked up the Mayhew Prize in applied mathematics. He enjoyed the life at Cambridge so much that he stayed on for another year and took a degree in economics.

He entered the British Meteorological Office in April 1939, six months before the outbreak of the Second World War. His first chief was O. G. Sutton, later to become Sir Graham Sutton, the Meteorological Office's Director-General. Since Priestley had not had any training at all in meteorology, to start with Sutton gave him work on diffusion to occupy three-quarters of his time and instructed him to spend the remaining quarter reading up more widely on meteorology from the available literature. This he must have done to very good effect. He gained an M.A. degree in 1942 and an Sc.D. in 1953.

Through the early 1940s operational meteorology changed rapidly from a predominantly two-dimensional to a fully three-dimensional science. Palmén and the group at Chicago University are properly credited with the discovery of the jet stream, but meteorologists in Europe were already well aware of the existence of very strong winds around the 300-hPa level. Owing to wartime restrictions, however, each had only a narrow belt of longitudes to look at, so the streamlike connectivity was not recognized. In 1943 Priestley was attached to the newly-formed upper-air unit at the Meteorological Office headquarters led by Sverre Petterssen. F. A. Berson and O. F. T Roberts had selected isobaric contour analysis as the method to be used, and in due course Petterssen and Priestley wrote what was perhaps the first operational manual on this technique.

After the war Priestley took the decision to apply for a position of meteorologist with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia. In 1946 he went with his newly-married wife to settle 'down under' and apparently had no difficulty in doing so. Starting entirely on his own, he built up a group which was to become known among atmospheric scientists the world over for its fundamental contributions to micro-meteorology, agricultural meteorology, and larger-scale synoptic and dynamic meteorology. Priestley's special interest lay in boundary-layer and micrometeorology, and during the next 35 years applications ramified from agriculture into numerous other socioeconomic fields ranging from industrial plants, transportation and commodity storage to human and animal health and soil and water conservation measures. At the same time he was able to turn his mind to problems on a much larger scale, and in fact made the first quantitative assessment of inter-latitude exchanges of momentum, heat and water vapour. His monograph Turbulent transfer in the lower atmosphere was for long the standard text on this subject, and he is the author of a lengthy article on microclimates in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Dr Priestley was one of the eminent scientists entrusted with formulating and planning the Global Atmospheric Research Programme, first as member of the WMO Advisory Committee and subsequently as one of the founder members of the Joint Organizing Committee for GARP. He has also served on two WMO working groups and on three IAMAP commissions as well as its Executive Committee. It is to him we owe the idea for the Historical Sea-surface Temperature Data project in which four WMO Members collaborated in retrieving data on sea temperatures from different areas during the past 120 years or so.

On his retirement from the CSIRO, Priestley was given a professorship by Monash University in Melbourne and he thoroughly enjoyed the new experience of teaching and the contact with students. Among the awards and distinctions conferred on him are the Buchan Prize (1950) and Symons Memorial Gold Medal (1967) by the Royal Meteorological Society, the IMO Prize (1973), and the Rossby Research Medal (1974) of the American Meteorological Society. He is a Fellow, past Vice-President and Flinders Medallist of the Australian Academy of Science.

The Editor of the WMO Bulletin is extremely grateful to Dr Priestley for having accorded him the following interview which took place on Thursday, 11 February 1982.

H.T. — Dr Priestley, although you have been living for a long time now in Australia, I gather that you originally came from England?

C.H.B.P. — Yes. I was born in Highgate on the outskirts of London, but when I was two we moved further out towards the countryside. My father was a London business man. In due course I went to Mill Hill School, which was the first of the English so-called public schools to admit dissenters from the Church of England. Then I went on to Cambridge University and studied mathematics, specializing in my final year in applied aspects such as hydrodynamics, thermodynamics, waves, tides, optics and so on. When I graduated in this, I did not feel inclined to take up an academic career, and there were such good opportunities for sport at Cambridge, particularly cricket and hockey which I loved, that I stayed on for another year and took a degree in economics.

H.T. — What sort of job did you seek when you went down from Cambridge?

C.H.B.P. — It was then 1939, and although I looked around for a job in economics, England was clearly preparing for war and there were few to be found. There were possibilities in science, most of them war-oriented. I went for an interview with the then Director of the Meteorological Office, Sir Nelson Johnson, who remarked that my specialization in thermodynamics and hydrodynamics made meteorology a particularly suitable area for me to work. So I joined the Meteorological Office.

H.T. — What sort of work were you given, and who were your collaborators?

C.H.B.P. — I had no formal training in meteorology, but was posted straight away to a research station at Porton Down in Wiltshire which was engaged in military work under the leadership of Graham Sutton, as he was then, later to become Sir Graham Sutton and Director of the Meteorological Office from 1953 to 1965. Our work focused on turbulence in the boundary layer, and I was enormously lucky to have a man like Sutton as chief. I learnt a great deal from him, not least the most effective way of going about research. Initially he said he was giving me work on turbulent diffusion, but that I should spend about a quarter of my time reading so as to acquire a reasonable knowledge across the whole width of meteorology. He expected me to do this in a few months, and he was right. I like to tell this story, not as a boast, but to illustrate how much the subject has advanced in little more than a generation and the reasons for the virtual disappearance of the all-round meteorologist. Sutton and I were both mathematicians by training. I took the place of P. A. Sheppard when he left to assist David Brunt at the only university in England which offered a course in meteorology. I asked Sutton why he had chosen me, a mathematician, to replace a physicist, and his answer was that you can always turn a mathematician into a physicist, but not the other way round. In fact, it is the mathematical type of thought rather than mathematical techniques which I have been using all my life. Another -colleague there was Frank Pasquill, who was a year or so senior to me. Oddly enough, he was working exclusively on evaporation whilst I was given work on problems of diffusion, and yet today Pasquill is one of the world's leading authorities on diffusion, whereas I have not published a single paper on diffusion but several on evaporation.

H.T. — I believe you visited Canada at about this time?

C.H.B.P. — The range at Porton Down proved too small for our experimental field work, and Canada offered a collaborative effort with a much larger range. In 1941 a team was sent there, one from each scientific discipline, and I was the meteorologist. We had to initiate our Canadian colleagues and a number of Americans who came along, and carry out field work on a much larger scale.

H.T. — In 1943 you joined the newly-formed upper-air unit in the Meteorological Office headquarters at Dunstable. Who were your colleagues there?

C.H.B.P. — I worked under the direction of Sverre Petterssen, and he was the second major influence in my scientific life. He was a completely different type of meteorologist from Sutton; he might be described as one of the greatest meteorological engineers. He had a way of 'cutting corners' in order to produce vivid and impressive working results. Other colleagues were A. F. A. Berson and W. C. Swinbank with whom I was to work (with one interval in Berson's case) for the next 25 years. Swinbank was a physicist with remarkable insight, one of the few meteorologists of that time to think of synoptics in terms of energy and thermodynamics, while Berson had a similar insight into the dynamics of what was happening and an ability to express it when drawing a synoptic map. 1 was thus extremely fortunate at having close contact with four such diverse experts in my early years.

H.T. — Can you tell about the pioneering work you did in upper-air analysis?

C.H.B.P. — Swinbank, Berson and I were three of a group of about seven upper-air forecasters working duties round the clock, with Petterssen our supervisor. It was the new need for precise navigation winds for high-flying aircraft which was our raison d'etre. The work we were doing was pioneering only in the technical sense. 1 imagine the same problems were being tackled in other countries, but of course there was no communication because of wartime secrecy. Our problem was how best to construct a series of upper-air charts, layer upon layer. The two original members of the group, Berson and O. F. T. Roberts, had decided that isobaric contour analysis was what we should go for, where you successively build up each pressure surface—1000, 850, 700, 500, 300 and 200 hPa—from the level below by putting one chart on top of another over a light-table and transposing, working forwards in time by modifying the height differences, or thickness line patterns, which are much more conservative than the contours or isobars themselves. Petterssen and I wrote up this technique in a manual which was distributed around the Meteorological Office, but I do not know whether it was actually published outside. Immediately after the war we had numerous visits to Dunstable by foreign meteorologists who expressed great interest in our technique.

H.T. — When the war was over, I presume Petterssen returned to Norway. Who took over from him?

C.H.B.P. — As a matter of fact I did, but only on an interim basis. The whole Meteorological Office headquarters was in the process of being reorganized; key people like Sutcliffe were now released from their military responsibilities and came back into the Office. Earlier, in our few leisure moments, Swinbank and I used to talk about boundary-layer problems in which we shared an interest, and had views about vertical transfer which were at variance with the established ones developed by C. I. Taylor, D. Brunt, and O. G. Sutton. Now our paper was to come before the Meteorological Research Committee which Sir Nelson Johnson had set up. These three men were members of it, in addition to Sydney Chapman (chairman), G. M. B. Dobson (vice-chairman), E. Gold and Sir Charles Normand. What a list of names, and with what trepidation we went before them! Ernest Gold was our sponsor and backed us to the hilt, and to our pleasure both Normand and Dobson gave quiet but firm support. This experience taught me much, especially that in a controversial discipline such as meteorology even the best scientists must be prepared to rethink and to accept criticism without rancour.

H.T. — In 1946 you accepted an appointment with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia. This was a big step to take. What made you decide to leave your home country?

C.H.B.P. — You must remember that as soon as I had completed my university education the war broke out. Conditions during the war were rather unusual, and I had not had time to grow permanent roots in England. The structure and way of life in Australia was not unlike that in Great Britain, and I already had family connexions out there; my uncle had been foundation professor of mathematics at Brisbane University. Leaving my home country was not in itself a particularly traumatic experience, and there was the attraction of building up something from scratch and doing it my own way. Such an opportunity is rarely offered to a young man such as I then was, and it was not to be turned down. At that time the primary industry of Australia was growing crops and rearing sheep and cattle. What could be more important to this than weather and climate? So CSIRO had decided to start a research programme in meteorology.

H.T. — So to start with you were the only meteorologist in CSIRO?

C.H.B.P. — Yes, apart from Patrick Squires who had been appointed to another division for radar research on clouds. I should explain that the lines of responsibility in the organization were extremely short; at the top was a committee of three scientists known as the Executive who were directly responsible to the cabinet minister. The Executive decided which fields CSIRO should engage itself in, and appointed a chief of division who was responsible to them. The chief could structure his own division more or less as he wished. Once a person was appointed research scientist, he or she could progress up to the highest level purely on the merit of research achievements, without the need to wait for 'dead men's shoes'. I have yet to find an organization structured on such liberal lines; it minimized the paper work and gave plenty of freedom of action to the chiefs and individual scientists.

Participants in the Symposium on Atmospheric Turbulence






Cambridge (Massachusetts, USA), June 1951 — Participants in the Symposium on Atmospheric Turbulence in the Boundary Layer, held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr Priestley is in the front row on the right. Second from the left in the front row is the late Sir Graham Sutton

H. T. — What line did you choose to follow, and how did it develop?

C. H. B. P. — As the principal field I chose micrometeorology, not only because it was a special interest of mine but also because it would have an immense potential for application in the Australian industries I have just mentioned. To start with we built on the work of the great Rudolf Geiger, and came to tackle the more fundamental problems which had been the subject of my paper with Swinbank. We developed a lot of microstructure instrumentation which was valuable in general field biology as well as in our basic micrometeorological studies—probes around plants and animals examining their heat and water balances. I also wanted to follow up some ideas in dynamics, and did so, but we were careful not to infringe on what was properly the sphere of the Bureau of Meteorology, namely direct forecasting research. We soon found that in order to study micrometeorology in depth we had to have expertise in radiation, so a radiation group was formed. In this way we gradually grew. I was alone in 1947; by 1956 there were ten research scientists, and by 1970 there were 20 research scientists and adequate technical support staff. By that time we were responsible for maintaining the national calibration laboratory for anemometry and the WMO Regional Association V standards for radiation and ozone instruments. So you see we had consolidated our radiation, agricultural meteorology, dynamics, and general circulation work and branched out into ozone and some other fields of atmospheric chemistry.

H.T. — Was CSIRO involved at all in the training of research workers?

C.H.B.P. — We did not have formal training courses, but of course we helped to train our colleagues from biology in the use of sensitive instruments and in applying micrometeorological concepts in their own fields. We also received meteorologists from other countries for advanced training and research experience in micrometeorology and its applications. Over twenty different countries sent meteorologists to us to learn this work. Our own officers were invited abroad to give lectures or to participate in research projects. Within CSIRO itself we went to much trouble to foster smaller groups doing micrometeorology within biological divisions; two of these attained international status in their own right.

H.T. — You were the first to make a quantitative assessment of large-scale inter-latitude exchanges of momentum, heat and water vapour. Could you please say something about this?

C.H.B.P. — This came about rather curiously. Just before leaving England I had written a paper on the dynamical control of atmospheric pressure. This had been published with so many printing errors as to be virtually unintelligible. Many years earlier, Harold Jeffreys had noted a paradox that the geostrophic approximation in the pressure tendency equation gave magnitudes which implied that depressions and anticyclones should move about with speeds of hundreds of kilometres per hour. The paradox was removed by substituting a wind allowing approximately for trajectory (not streamline) curvature, and the work was elaborated later to explain the typical size of extra-tropical pressure systems and provided some useful rules for translation and development. My approximation was a forerunner of the 'balance equation' developed years later to rescue the early numerical forecast from massive errors deriving from the same paradox. I have always considered this my best piece of work, but I think the printing errors prevented it from gaining wider notice. However it was in my loneliness of early 1947 that, pondering on Jeffreys, I recalled his classical deduction that depressions and anticyclones were not just disturbances but necessary agents in the general circulation. This deduction could now be quantitatively tested by using data from the best rawinsonde stations, calculating the poleward momentum and energy fluxes. My initial calculations, verifying Jeffreys' deductions absolutely, were presented by Brunt to the IAM (as it was then) at Helsinki in 1948. The work was continued for a few years before yielding to the greater resources of two American pairs, Bjerknes-Mintz and Starr-White, who had started independently at about the same time. There was, however, a significant difference in approach in that they inclined to use analysed maps and read off the (quasi-geostrophic) winds, as opposed to my reliance on actual wind measurements which thereby allowed estimates of the flux contributions from the mean meridional circulations as well as the synoptic-scale 'eddies'.

H.T. — You also did pioneer work in vertical transfer processes at the Earth-atmosphere interface, and your monograph1 on turbulent transfer in the lower atmosphere was accepted as authoritative at the time. What did you demonstrate in it?

C.H.B.P. — We set out to measure individual small eddies and their vertical motion so that we could obtain directly the vertical fluxes of heat, momentum and water vapour. This allowed us to compare the fluxes with the gradients and to derive laws to relate them. I should have mentioned that by now I had been joined by E. Leonard Deacon, who had been a colleague of mine under Sutton, and also by Bill Swinbank. Swinbank took charge of instrumental developments which we had foreshadowed in our joint paper presented to the MRC and also the field work over land, whilst Deacon was responsible for field work over the oceans. At Petterssen's invitation I gave a course of lectures at the University of Chicago in 1957 on our results, and these were subsequently incorporated in the monograph you refer to. One contribution was to establish the laws governing the vertical heat flux and the temperature profile under conditions of free convection, and to discover that these laws were in fact valid even in moderate winds. I also worked on parcel and plume theories of convection and, in collaboration with F. K. Ball, first derived the law for the height of penetration of a continuous plume through a temperature inversion without wind. There was also a working theory for a plume bent over by a wind. We would have gone further in this research, which is still widely pursued, but at that time there were no data to check our theories against.

H.T. — I see from my notes that your micrometeorology studies were extremely wide-ranging—evaporation, water behaviour, energy balance, frost prevention, plants and animals—as well as microclimatic studies on the physiology and diseases of plants and on air-sea interaction. How many were you altogether to do this work?

C.H.B.P. — At the time we are talking about (the late 1950s) we were ten research scientists and our work in fact covered much more than the topics you mention. I must emphasize that we worked as a team, about six members contributing to the various applied micrometeorology studies, many of which were quite major tasks in their own right. Deacon had a flair for finding the most unexpected applications, and it was he who made the most diverse contributions. 1 believe that we, as micrometeorologists, can justly claim to have been pathfinders in what is now referred to by the much more pretentious title of environmental science. I rather resented it when some meteorologists started to refer to us as 'ivory tower' scientists; 'worm's eye view' would have been a more accurate description if they had wanted to be rude about us. When I retired, a panel of Australian scientists.— who were not meteorologists — reviewed the work we had done, and in their report tended to belittle our applied work in environmental science, saying that we should have done more to support weather forecasting. This in spite of our understanding with the Bureau of Meteorology not to trespass in their specialist domain. It only shows that it is impossible to please everybody.

H.T. — When did you have your first contact with IMO or WMO?

C.H. B.P. — I was a member of the IMO Aerological Commission in 1947, and some years afterwards I was put on a working group of the WMO Commission for Climatology. At that time the president of CC1 was Professor Warren Thornthwaite, and the chairman of the working group—it was on microclimatology—was Dr M. H. Halstead. Later still I was chairman of a three-man working group set up by the WMO Commission for Aerology to draft a Technical Note on turbulent diffusion.2 Frank Pasquill contributed a review of theoretical results on turbulent diffusion, I wrote on research into evaporation and the diffusion of water vapour in the lower layers, and Bob McCormick wrote on the diffusion of air pollution in industrial regions. About the same time, Deacon, Swinbank and I were commissioned by Unesco to write a review on evaporation and the water balance as part of their Arid Zone Research Programme.

H.T. — From 1964 to 1969 you were a member of the WMO Advisory Committee, and its chairman for the penultimate year. What were your impressions of the committee?

C.H.B.P. — I share the views expressed by Professor Sutcliffe (WMO Bulletin 30 (3) p. 178). Our main achievement was the liaison with ICSU in the context of GARP, and I feel it was a mistake to disband the Advisory Committee in fear of overlapping with the new Joint Organizing Committee for GARP. The JOC had a specific programme to organize, whereas the Advisory Committee had given thoughts to much more general problems such as the outer atmosphere, atmospheric chemistry and education in meteorology (especially in the developing countries). We were a useful bridge between Meteorological Services and the academic world. Be that as it may, it fell to me as chairman to put the case for GARP as conceived by the Advisory Committee to the WMO Executive Committee at its nineteenth session in 1967. This was my one and only appearance in the large conference room in Geneva, and I was very apprehensive. There was quite a lot of argument, but the Advisory Committee's recommendations were supported by several influential members of the Executive Committee and all was well.

H.T. — It was in the Advisory Committee that you first put forward the idea of a project to gather historical sea-surface temperature data. What were your main reasons?

C.H.B.P. — I'm glad you asked me this. In 1963 I had done a small piece of work showing a correlation between sea-surface temperatures down the eastern coast of Australia and rainfall in the months following, but I found that the available oceano-graphic data were very scrappy. I saw sea-surface temperatures as being a most useful aid in long-range forecasting, and 1 knew that there was information on this parameter in national archives going back 50 or even 100 years which had never really been looked at. If we could only use these data to establish good month-by-month values throughout such a period for different sea areas, we should have a helpful tool for forecasting anomalous seasons over land. People say that now with the satellites we can get sea-surface temperature data with about as fine a spatial resolution as we like. That is true, but it will be another 90 years before we have a time-series of satellite data to compare with that which already exists over some of the more travelled parts of the oceans. I am very glad to learn that the Historical Sea-surface Temperature Data project eventually came to fruition. Meteorologists and oceanographers have reason to be very grateful to the Federal Republic of Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the USA for their collaborative efforts.

H.T. — Have you done much work on climate?

C.H.B.P. — As far as macroclimate is concerned, only a little. In the 1960s 1 wrote a few short papers about the climate of Australia; as I just mentioned, I showed that seasonal rainfall could be correlated with sea-surface temperature, and I also wrote a general paper arguing that wherever water was not limiting, the air temperature and that of exposed (wet) leaves would not exceed 33°C. But climate is to a substantial extent generated upwards from the ground and, as explained, our group did extensive work in microclimatology. You may have noticed that I am the author of quite a long article on microclimates in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

H.T. — With which of the ICSU bodies have you been associated?

C.H.B.P. — I served on three of the commissions of IAMAP—the Commission on Dynamic Meteorology and the Joint Commissions on Air-Sea Interaction and on Evaporation—for several years; similarly on the ICSU Committee for Atmospheric Sciences which, under the chairmanship of Bert Bolin, initiated the concept and development of GARP. I had two spells on the IAMAP Executive Committee, and was vice-president during the term leading up to the IUGG Assembly at Grenoble in 1975. My doctor advised me against standing for election as president because of the strain of frequent travelling from remote Australia; but as chairman of the nominations committee at Grenoble I had the pleasure of nominating for election Professor C. Junge who proved to be an outstanding president.

H.T. — In 1967 you were appointed with eleven others as founder-member of the Joint WMO/ICSU Organizing Committee for GARP. Are you satisfied with the way GARP has been carried out?

C.H.B.P. — Indeed, I am. I must add that I only served on the JOC for the first four years. Those who have crossed the world to and from Australia for short meetings will appreciate the strain of doing so three of four times a year, as had been my lot, folding myself double to get into an aircraft seat. Professor Rolando Garcia was secretary of JOC at that critical time, and I should like to pay tribute to the outstanding work Bolin and he did for the GARP. Apart from Garcia, I was the only member of the JOC from the southern hemisphere, also the only southerner on the WMO Advisory Committee. This responsibility had weighed on me quite heavily. Of the regional GARP experiments, our group was most closely involved in AMTEX (the Air Mass Transformation Experiment). You will remember that this was a study of very cold air blowing over the much warmer water of the East China Sea, resulting in perhaps the most intense convection anywhere in the world. Some of the techniques we had developed in Australia were particularly suitable for AMTEX. As for the GARP Global Weather Experiment, this was an important milestone for southern hemisphere meteorology. Although research on the data has only just begun, I am confident that the benefit to southern hemisphere weather forecasting will be amply demonstrated. In fact I deeply regret that GARP has now been pushed aside to make way for the World Climate Programme.

H.T. — Could you tell us something about the characteristic features of southern hemisphere meteorology?

C.H.B.P. — There is very little land mass between about 40 and 63°S so the westerlies are much stronger. Warm currents do set off southwards from the western margins of the oceans in a similar manner to the Gulf Stream and the Kuro Shio in the northern hemisphere, but because of the strength of the zonal Southern Ocean Current and the presence of two quasi-continuous ocean 'fronts'—the Subtropical and Antarctic Convergences—these warm currents do not penetrate polewards nearly as far as their northern counterparts. Antarctica is a huge generator of cold air masses— far more effective than the Arctic—and so probably the jet stream associated with the polar front is stronger, but we really know very little about it. It seems that the polar front itself is not as well connected or as Earth-girdling as in the northern hemisphere. So I return to the very real need for concerted action in studying the southern hemisphere circulation in more detail than has hitherto been possible. Along the southern coast of Australia we have a unique geography, an ocean-continent boundary running west-east with the ocean open to the Antarctic Circle.

Dr Priestley was presented with the IMO Prize








Dr Priestley was presented with the IMO Prize on the occasion of the combined Special Assembly of IAMAP and IAPSO at Melbourne in January 1974. Here he is seen with Professor H. Lacombe (president of IAPSO), Dr S. Fritz (president of IAMAP), the Hon. W. A. Borthwick (Minister of Conservation, Lands and Soldier Settlement of the state of Victoria) and Sir Rutherford Robertson (president of the Australian Academy of Science)

With dry heated land the cold fronts in summer are greatly intensified, and I believe that this is the only region in the world where the day-to-day variability of weather, and especially temperature, is far greater in summer than in winter. So you see, we are at a big disadvantage in the southern hemisphere not having the population, the wealth and the multitude of meteorological institutions that exist in the north. We must rely on the northern countries supporting world-wide projects such as the Global Weather Experiment from which the principal beneficiaries are the southerners.

H.T. — Among the various awards you have received for your scientific work, including of course the IMO Prize in 1973, which do you value the most?

C.H.B.P. — In a way, I felt more honoured when I learnt that I had been nominated for the IMO Prize than when I won it. This was because the nomination came from someone who at the time I had never met and whose country I had never had the pleasure of visiting, namely Dr Austin Bourke of Ireland. To me, this was a token of the true internationalism of science. I have also received awards in the United Kingdom and Australia which I value highly. But I have to admit that the award which gave me greatest pleasure is the American Meteorological Society's highest honour, the Carl-Gustav Rossby Research Medal. There are several reasons: it was totally unexpected, I believe I was only the second non-American to receive it (the first being Arnt Eliassen of Norway), it is named after a great scientist I have known and admired, and the citation seems to be so perceptive. Let me read it to you: '... for his fundamental contributions to the understanding of turbulent processes and the links between small-scale and large-scale dynamics in the atmosphere'. In the words of Richardson's famous epigram, it has never been the big or the little fleas which have intrigued me most, but the mechanisms of the biting process.

H.T. — How have you spent your time since retiring from CSIRO?

C.H.B.P. — Monash University here in Melbourne very kindly gave me a part-time professorship. This meant that I had all the dignity of a professor, but was only expected to work for one-fifth of the time (for one-fifth of the salary, naturally). Giving a course of instruction was a new experience for me and I enjoyed it immensely. But there is an age limit even for part-time professors, and I have left the University now. I am still interested in meteorology, and I love it when younger former colleagues who are still working come and talk about what they are doing. Of course I visit them sometimes, but I feel strongly that retired folk should not intrude into the work of the younger people unless invited, so I much prefer them to take the initiative. My chief scientific activity now is as part-time consultant-cum-chairman in connexion with a scientific investigation of air pollution in the La Trobe valley about 150 km east of Melbourne. The state of Victoria relies heavily on its vast deposits of brown coal for its energy needs. However, this has obvious environmental drawbacks as you can imagine, and we are trying to judge the ultimate regional environmental restraints to this power source. There is a fine network of air quality observing points through the valley, designed under the previous chairmanship of Dr Gibbs, but the forward prediction is still a major research problem. Apart from that, I spend quite a lot of time on the golf course. It is my principal outdoor recreation.

H.T. — You have never regretted emigrating? To someone living in Europe, Australia seems so isolated.

C.H.B.P. — No I haven't. I love Australia; my children were all born here and I feel identified with the country in every way except in support at cricket matches. When you speak of isolation, it is a fact that Australia and New Zealand are not conveniently situated for someone travelling between other points in the world to stop off for a while. This means tha)t we only see professional colleagues who come deliberately to spend their time with us; only very rarely are visitors just passing through. I must say I miss the unexpected and helpful titbits of information that one picks up from casual visitors. Nevertheless, I have been extremely fortunate in having been able to forge good relationships with great people in many parts of the world. Places as far apart as India, Japan, North America and Scandinavia, not to mention my own motherland. It may surprise you to know that although I worked for over seven years in the British Meteorological Office, the circumstances at the time prevented me from meeting some of my most eminent fellow-countrymen in meteorology. It was only thanks to the internationalism of meteorology that I subsequently came to meet men such as Sutcliffe, Eady, Sawyer, Mason, Ashford and Charnock.

H.T. — What do you believe will be the future thrust in meteorology?

C.H.B.P. — That is a big subject you raise. I doubt whether there will be any completely new discoveries such as the jet stream or baroclinic instability, but then one can never anticipate discoveries. It seems to me that the advances will come in whichever areas management chooses to make their primary investment. I believe that in the next 10-15 years the potential for real progress will be much greater in the field of forecasting than in climate, especially if we can recover some of our old skills. The advent of the satellite and the computer were tremendous technological advances, but the whole community got rather carried away by numerical weather prediction and lost some of its skill in interpreting the predicted pressure field in terms of weather. I would not be at all surprised if our skill in that particular aspect has actually gone down since I started in meteorology over 40 years ago. The experience and skill of men like C. K. M. Douglas is virtually impossible to document, and much of it has been lost to posterity because of the glamour of the new technological tools. Certainly these tools are essential to progress, but I am convinced that at the same time we need to strive to sharpen our insight in the area of chart interpretation, via the local mesometeorology. Because of the infinite variety of land forms, it is much harder to formulate valid generalizations in meso- than in micro- or macrometeorology. Another matter which I feel has not improved much in my professional lifetime is the image of meteorology. In spite of the advances in the services we render we have somehow failed to get across to the general public, and even to scientists in other disciplines, what a challenging and interesting subject meteorology is, and how it still needs encouragement. It seems to me that the way to do this is through better education; not just at university but seeing that our schoolchildren are accurately and interestingly taught the subject, imbuing in more of them the desire to be a meteorologist. Then there will be pressure on universities to give meteorology a higher status, and ultimately the meteorological community may get a better share of the top scientific talent that it so badly needs.

H.T. — These words of wisdom will certainly strike a responsive chord among leaders in meteorology the world over. Dr Priestley, thank you very much for having co-operated in our series of interviews.


  • 1 Priestley, C. H. B. (1959):  Turbulent transfer in the lower atmosphere. University of Chicago Press, USA. 130 pp. [back]
  • 2 Turbulent diffusion in the atmosphere. Technical Note No. 24 (1958). WMO-No. 77. [back]


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