Interview With Professor J. Smagorinsky


In the third quarter of the seventeenth century, settlers from other parts of New Jersey bought and started to cultivate the rich land bordering the Millstone River and Stony Brook. In 1724, the nucleus of this community of mostly Quaker farmers was given the name of Prince Town.

A College of New Jersey was founded in 1746, and a few years later a small group of philanthropic citizens offered land and money to build permanent premises for it in Princeton (as it later came to be known). By 1756 courses had started in Nassau Hall which in its day was the largest public building in the colonies. There were only 70 students at first, with three tutors and a president, yet out of these modest beginnings grew up Princeton University, which today is recognized as one of the most outstanding national institutions of the USA.

The University aside, for many people Princeton is one of the most delightful residential centres in the east. The surrounding countryside is green and wooded, there are rich and varied cultural activities, and the town possesses a character and atmosphere not found in other conurbationsyet it is only some 70 km from the centre of New York and rather less from Philadelphia.


Professor J. Smagorinsky









Professor J. Smagorinsky (Photo: G. A. Corby)

The Institute for Advanced Study was founded here in 1930. Its purpose is to foster scientific progress in its broadest sense. No degrees are offered; rather it is a forum for those whose intellectual powers have already achieved recognition to come and study diverse problems in their particular field of expertise in a congenial academic environment. The Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) is an organ of the USA 's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. From a small group of specialists in numerical modelling of the atmospheric general circulation, the GFDL grew and broadened its scope to embrace observational and modelling studies of the oceans, planetary atmospheres and atmospheric phenomena on smaller scales. The combined experience of the eminent scientists who work here, together with the superb facilities available, make the Laboratory second to none in its field. That it has attained this status is largely due to the inspired leadership over 27 years of the retiring director, Professor Joseph Smagorinsky.

The driver of the taxi taking the Editor of the WMO Bulletin to meet Professor Smagorinsky at the GFDL headquarters building stopped on the way to point out the place where Albert Einstein had worked from 1933 to 1955. We gazed at the building, thinking of the man whose relativity theories have given us means of comprehending the universe. Not only did Einstein discover the mass-energy equation (E = mc2) 1 and the modern laws governing the behaviour of massive bodies and high-speed particles, but his equations can be extended to represent the origin and fate of the entire universe.

Joe Smagorinsky admits that in his early youth his primary interest was in hydrodynamics as applied to the design and construction of racing yacht hulls. However, as things turned out he became one of the first undergraduates to enrol in a course on meteorology introduced in 1941 by New York University. This was interrupted in 1943 when Smagorinsky was called up for military service (the Second World War was then at its height), but fortunately, although he was now in uniform, he was able to continue his studies in meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Smagorinsky tells us that in his boyhood he had thought that the weather was forecast deterministically by applying physical principles. It was a great disappointment to learn that in fact it was an entirely subjective process, even if based on reasonably well defined concepts such as isobaric analyses, air masses and frontal systems. However, the work at Princeton brought new hope to the budding scientist. He saw the possibilities that were being opened for the study of the dynamics of convection, synoptic-scale baroclinic processes, the general circulation and ultimately climate. Looking back on this period in later years he wrote:

'In one day, my visions were completely transformed. Little did I know that 1 would be privileged to participate in a scientific revolution that, when I first made my career choice, I had mistakenly thought had already happened...'2

When he obtained his Ph.D. in 1953, Smagorinsky returned to the Weather Bureau in Washington to start up a small group which became known as the Joint Numerical Weather Prediction Unit (being co-sponsored by the Air Force and Navy Departments). Involved in operational applications of NWP, it was the progenitor of the National Meteorological Center. However, by 1955 Norman Phillips had constructed a general circulation model, and Dr Reichelderfer, Chief of the Weather Bureau, agreed to set up a research group to exploit this further. Almost from the first this group was led by Professor Smagorinsky; it was in 1963 that it acquired the title by which it is known todaythe Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratoryfive years later forming an association with Princeton University and moving into its present premises.

Professor Smagorinsky has been a member of some 30 national and international committees and panels, and has received numerous honours and awards. Among these may be mentioned the US Department of Commerce Gold Medal (1966), the Carl-Gustav Rossby Research Medal (1972), the Cleveland Abbe Award and the Presidential Award of Meritorious Executive Rank in the Senior Executive Service (1980). Recognition has come from other countries as well, for example a D.Sc. (h.c.) from the Federal Republic of Germany, the Buys Ballot Medal from the Netherlands and the Symons Gold Medal from the United Kingdom. He received the IMO Prize in 1974.

Joe Smagorinsky retired from the GFDL in 1983. In spite of his earlier heart attack he appears to be in excellent health. In fact the Editor could not resist asking him how he managed to retain such a youthful complexion. For the benefit of male readers for whom the advice does not come too late, his reply was that perhaps it was because he lathered his face rather briskly before shaving.

The Editor is extremely grateful to Professor Smagorinsky for having agreed to the following interview which took place at the GFDL headquarters in Princeton on Monday 17 January 1983.

H.T. — Professor Smagorinsky, I see you were born in 1924. Could you please say something about your family background?

J.S. — My parents came from Byelorussia. My father emigrated to the USA in 1913 and my mother followed with my two elder brothers in 1916. Then my parents had two more boys—I was the youngest, born in New York City on 29 January 1924. In my teens I was already interested in meteorology, I remember often going to a weather observatory run by a New York newspaper just to watch what they were doing. But an even greater interest at that time was the design of yachts and racing hulls; I used to construct scale models from plans and race them on the lake in Central Park. I thought at first I would like to become a naval architect but that did not work out, so I opted for my second love which was meteorology. You see how fluid dynamics had already captured my attention. Actually I became one of the first students to enrol for the undergraduate course in meteorology at New York University in 1941.

H.T. — The Second World war had already started in Europe by then. Did this affect your studies?

J.S. — Yes. Military service interrupted my studies at New York in 1943. However, I was sent to Brown University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and was then commissioned as a lieutenant in 1944. On demobilization in 1946 I returned to New York University and obtained my master's degree in 1948. During this time I met my wife; she had been trained as a statistician and worked with Glenn W. Brier during the war at the Weather Bureau in Washington, D.C. The Weather Bureau then had sent her on a one-year course at New York University to learn some meteorology, and since she was obliged to return to Washington I had to try to find a job there too. So it was that after graduating I joined the staff of the Weather Bureau.

H.T. — Who were the professors at New York University that had the greatest influence on you?

J.S. — I would say they were Bernhard Haurwitz and Hans Panofsky, both of whom had come from Germany in the 1930s. Panofsky conditioned my reasoning in objective analysis, and Haurwitz gave me my orientation in dynamical meteorology. Outside of the university, it was Jule Charney who probably exerted the greatest influence on me.

H.T. — What books were available at that time?

J.S. — Haurwitz had recently completed his Dynamic Meteorology and of course there was Brunt's earlier Physical and Dynamical Meteorology. We also had Physics of the Air by W. J. Humphreys and a few books on synoptic meteorology such as those by Byers and Petterssen. It was a shame that Rossby never wrote a book.

H.T. — After the war, you were research assistant at New York University. What were you doing?

J.S. — I was research assistant to Panofsky and to J. E. Miller. The two projects I remember best were on objective analysis and on calculating the vertical motion field—from the pressure field, directly from winds, and by using the omega equation. I also taught a bit on mathematical methods in meteorology. A group of young students came from the Philippines and they were really quite a brilliant lot. One of them, Mariano Estoque, is now a professor in a Florida university.

H.T. — What was your first job in the Weather Bureau?

J.S. — In those days it was not strictly legitimate for the Weather Bureau to do any research, and Harry Wexler was called the director of special scientific services, although in fact he headed a research group which included Sigmund Fritz, Lewis D. Kaplan and Morris Tepper. Part of my job was to be research assistant to Wexler, and he put me to work on the influence of solar flares on terrestrial weather. It was an interesting but frustrating problem which, incidentally, has still not been solved. The other part of my job was to answer letters from the general public. They were mostly crank letters asking about effects of atom bomb explosions on the weather and climate. I got quite good at drafting a reply which would not tempt the correspondent to write back a second time, but at the same time not so curt as to make him complain to his representative in Congress.

H.T. — How did it come about that you went to Princeton?

J.S. — While I was still at the university in 1948 I heard a lecture by Charney on scale properties of the equations of motion, and this fascinated me because it offered a rational approach to using physical methods in prediction. Later when I was in Washington I went to another of his lectures and asked some questions, as a result of which he invited me to visit Princeton to help with one-dimensional linear barotropic calculations. In 1950 he asked whether I could come for an extended period of time. The Weather Bureau gave me leave of absence and for the next three years I worked there, travelling to New York University once or twice a week because I had decided to do my Ph.D. with Haurwitz as my adviser. Of course Charney also helped me enormously.

H.T. — In Princeton, you were working at the Institute of Advanced Study. What was going on there?

J.S. — The Institute of Advanced Study had been created by some wealthy business men in the early 1930s as a centre for really brilliant scholars of the time, such as Albert Einstein. To start with, it had no accommodation of its own and was housed by Princeton University. Nevertheless, it was totally independent of the university, being financed from private sources until after the war. Then it started, with some reluctance, to accept financing from government agencies because this had become more the style. Well, the Air Force and Navy Departments supported a project to develop a computer which would be radically different from any hitherto constructed, and to head this project they appointed the brilliant mathematician John von Neumann. In fact this was to become the grandfather of all modern computers in that it stored information and programs and had programs which could change themselves; there was no software in those days. For advice in identifying physical problems to which this giant machine could be applied, von Neumann turned to Carl-Gustav Rossby and Harry Wexler. They decided that L. F. Richardson's original problem of 25 years earlier would be ideal if it were conditioned by Rossby's later work, which simplified the atmospheric model as then conceived. After a few false starts, Jule Charney had been brought in to lead a group of meteorologists and to apply his theories on baroclinic instability and filtering approximations.

H.T. — When you obtained your Ph.D. in 1953, the Weather Bureau asked you to come back to start up a small research group on numerical weather prediction in Washington. Did you have a computer available?

J.S. — Not to start with. We worked on objective analysis, precipitation, dynamics and prediction. It was decided to try using some baroclinic results obtained by Charney and Norman Phillips in a three-level model to make operational forecasts, and I had to help organize a group for this, train the people and set up the system. We tried out a couple of computers then available and chose the IBM 701. That was how the Joint Numerical Weather Prediction Unit was established in 1954, which in due course was to become the National Meteorological Center. George Cressman was its first director. Among other members of the group were Charles Bristor, Louis Carstensen, G. O. Collins and Fred Shuman.

H.T. — Could you tell readers something about von Neumann?

J.S. — John von Neumann was born in Budapest in 1903. He later studied in Berlin and Zurich; already in the 1920s he wrote a classic book on quantum mechanics which is still valid today.


Madison (USA), scientists took part in a conference on long-range forecasting held at the University of Wisconsin








Madison (USA), August 1956 — Many well-known scientists took part in a conference on long-range forecasting held at the University of Wisconsin. Professor Smagorinsky is second row from the back, second from left. Other personalities interviewed in this series are Dr R. M. White (front row, second from left) and Professor H. Flohn (second row from the back, second from right)

He was mainly known as a mathematician but he had worked in physics, meteorology, chemistry, game theory and economics, and excelled in them all. I have known many brilliant people in my life, but I think von Neumann is the only one I would qualify as a genius. He had a quite phenomenal memory, and could do things that no ordinary human being could do. I feel sure that it was only because he spread his intellectual powers over so many subjects that he was never awarded a Nobel Prize. He left Princeton in 1955 to become an atomic energy commissioner, and died in Washington in 1957. I think the Institute had accepted the computer project largely on account of von Neumann's standing, and after he left it was clear the Institute wanted to abandon it. Herman Goldstine had been general manager of the project, and probably because of this situation he left around 1955. Charney and Phillips hoped they might start up a meteorology department in Princeton University, but at that time the university was not interested. So they went to the MIT3. Von Neumann and Charney convinced Dr Reichelderfer, Chief of the Weather Bureau, of the need for a general circulation research group to exploit Phillips's ideas. Harry Wexler had also certainly put in a good word and he headed the group to start with, but very soon I took it over. At the end of 1956 there were nine people in the section, and now there are about 85.

H.T. — How did this differ from the Joint Numerical Weather Prediction Unit?

J.S. — Of course they had many features in common: to start with they were both financed jointly by the Air Force, Navy and Weather Bureau; in our General Circulation Research Section we had no computer of our own, we bought computer time from the JNWPU; and we both used deterministic methods. However, the JNWPU's objective was the routine production of 12- to 36-hour numerical weather predictions to help in the forecast process (subjective modification and refinement was still considered indispensable in those days). Our work was basic research following up Phillips's earlier results to try to understand the general circulation, and ultimately climate. At the end of the first year both the Air Force and the Navy decided to discontinue their support, and a crisis loomed for the Section. However, Reichelderfer undertook to fund the whole project from Weather Bureau resources even though it was still considered somewhat improper for the Bureau to involve itself in research. This was one of the many unorthodox but farsighted decisions for which Reichelderfer is remembered today. He even went as far as to agree that I be permitted to hire people from outside the Bureau if necessary—it had always been my policy not to fill a post unless I could have the right person for it.

H.T. — Where was your section housed?

J.S. — For some years we were in offices donated by Jerome Namias in Suitland, Maryland, just outside the boundary of Washington, D.C. Then when we got our own 'Stretch' IBM 7030 computer in 1962 we had to move to 615 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. By that time we were known as the General Circulation Research Laboratory. Actually I realized we would not get far in research on climate without having an oceanographic element, and so in 1960 I recruited Kirk Bryan to come and do some ocean modelling, although I knew this was not quite legal. I had mentioned my idea to Harry Wexler who quickly warned me not to tell him too much. In 1963 the name was changed to that by which it is known today, the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL).

H.T. — Were there any changes when Dr White became Chief of the Weather Bureau in 1963?

J.S. — One of Bob White's first major reforms was to create the Environmental Satellite Services Administration (ESSA) in 1965, which merged the Weather Bureau, the Coast and Geodetic Survey and the Central Radio Propagation Laboratory, and to have a separate research organization to support the services that ESSA provided. This was  the  Institute  for  Atmospheric  Research  (IAR),  comprising the  GFDL,  the hurricane laboratory, the severe storms laboratory and a few other groups. After Harry Wexler died I was appointed acting director of meteorological research (but remaining director of the GFDL). When the IAR was constituted, I decided to decline the directorship of the atmospheric science laboratories. I never regretted that decision. NOAA took over from ESSA in 1970 but I remained director of the GFDL; essentially the same position as that I had entered in October 1955. The size and scope of the organization had changed, that was all.

H.T. — When and why did the GFDL come to Princeton?

J.S. — By the mid-1960s we had an active post-doctoral research programme, but one of our problems was that we had to train all our own staff. Scientists such as Bryan and Manabe came and learned modelling, some stayed on and others left after a year or so. What the nation needed was an academic faculty to train people in modelling at the Ph.D. level. Several universities realized this and approached us on their own initiative to know whether we would be interested in a collaborative arrangement. I knew of a few examples of laboratories located on university campuses, but I was still hesitant about doing the same. Then we received formal and informal offers from seven or eight universities, some of them very good ones. Princeton was one of the last to come up, but it was clear that in this case there was interest from the junior faculty all the way up to the highest administration. Also the interest seemed to be in the intellectual gain to the university rather than any financial gain (which in our case would be minimal anyway). So for these and several other reasons, it was decided that the GFDL would co-locate with Princeton University. The university undertook to establish a graduate programme in geophysical fluid dynamics, and agreed that we would not be tied exclusively to any one university department. We soon forged links with the departments for civil engineering, aerospace and mechanical sciences and geology and geophysical sciences. We also had unofficial ties with other departments, such as astrophysics, chemical engineering and statistics. After a number of years the university authorities felt that this was too untidy an arrangement and insisted we go into one department. By then we had established our reputation and were attracting students directly to the geophysical fluid dynamics programme, so it was no longer important that we be unattached. Thus it was that in the mid-1970s we became part of the Geology and Geophysical Sciences Department, but still retained a distinct identity.

H.T. — Why geology?

J.S. — The main reason was that we had a lot in common with geologists. In the broader sense, geophysical fluid dynamics includes the fluid dynamics of the mantle and the interior of the Earth. Also palaeoclimatic evidence is directly relevant and that was an area of particular expertise in the department. Then there was marine geochemistry where tracers are used to investigate the structure and dynamics of the ocean and to study biogeochemical cycles. This arrangement has worked out very well indeed, and we continue to attract students directly for the Ph.D. programme—that is the only degree we offer.

H.T. — The staff of the GFDL is paid by the Government, and yet you have such close ties with the university. Does this present any problems?

J.S. — No. Those of us involved in the geophysical fluid dynamics programme run by the university have adjunct appointments. For instance I am a visiting lecturer with rank of professor, and there are about a dozen others in a similar position. We have to be careful not to involve ourselves in university affairs which are outside our purview—for example it would not be appropriate for me to be on a committee which decides salaries since I am not paid by the university. But apart from a few things like that we enjoy the usual privileges of the faculty. We occupy accommodation on the university campus and we pay rent for it. Two of my children attended the university and I paid the full rate for them just like anyone else. Students following the programme pay university fees, but they generally have stipends from NOAA or the National Science Foundation. Nowadays there are several NOAA laboratories co-located with universities. Although they all studied our agreement with Princeton, none decided to tie themselves so completely into the academic structure as we are here. If the GFDL were to leave Princeton, 1 doubt whether the university could maintain the programme.

H.T. — Please tell me something about the work you are doing.

J.S. — Back in the 1950s we had realized that the best way to test an advanced general circulation model was to put in real initial data and utilize it as a forecast model. To begin with, we integrated a primitive equation model over two days using real data and made precipitation forecasts; then one day the model was accidentally allowed to run on over four days and we found there was still inherent predictability. After that we made several deliberate integrations over longer intervals, and we reported on this at an NWP conference in Moscow in 1965. I already mentioned that Kirk Bryan came to do some ocean modelling; he started with a wind-driven barotropic ocean circulation and then went on to a heat-driven circulation. I got Douglas Lilly to come and start modelling convection, because in the late 1950s that had not yet been touched upon. In the early 1960s a young British scientist named Gareth Williams came and started to tackle the vacillation problem numerically, and subsequently turned his attention to other planetary atmospheres, and is now engaged in very fine work on the atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn. At about the same time we also embarked upon observational studies which are now being carried on to excellent effect by Bram Oort and his colleagues. In the late 1960s we went on to hurricane modelling and in the early 1970s started mesoscale modelling. So we have worked our way over most of the spectrum.

H.T. — Do you do nothing but modelling?

J. S. — Because we have always been associated with large computers it has often been assumed that we do nothing but numerical modelling, but this is not altogether the case. There are lots of things that can be tackled more easily and with more informative results by a non-numerical approach; I encourage our people to regard the computer as a tool rather than an end in itself. My philosophy from the very beginning was that the laboratory should attack important complex problems that would take a lot of time, so that we needed long-term commitments. This was not easy in the early days when research groups had to publish results quickly or perish. You must remember that although the general circulation models we started out with seem simple now, to us at the time they were highly complex. Another thing that we pioneered to some extent was interdisciplinary interaction; we had to synthesize radiation, condensation, boundary-layer and ocean processes into interacting modes so that they would work together. This implies that less, rather than more, specialization is needed to construct a comprehensive general circulation and climate model. Back in the 1930s Rossby had already seen the union between meteorology and oceanography and atmospheric chemistry, and he would be happy to know that things are moving that way.

H.T. — What was the origin of your involvement in the Global Atmospheric Research Programme?

J.S. — I remember the first hint I had was at a conference in UCLA4 in the early 1960s when Jule Charney remarked that there were exciting new observation techniques, and asked me how I would like to have lots more observations for describing the initial state. Of course I said this would be great, but nothing happened for a while. Then at the NWP conference in Moscow when I presented our first four-day forecast results, Arnt Eliassen and Tom Malone came to me and asked me to get involved in a project which at that time was mainly being fostered by ICSU, but which subsequently blossomed into the WMO/ICSU Global Atmospheric Research Programme. GFDL was, of course, eminently suited to play a big part in GARP. 1 was invited to be a lead speaker in the GARP Study Conference at Stockholm in 1967, and presented an account of our recent work on predictability. This came to form a basis of the conference report which put GARP into perspective. Then I was asked by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences to be a member of the U.S. National Committee for GARP, and WMO and ICSU invited me to be one of the 12 members of the Joint Organizing Committee.

Boulder (USA), July 1964









Boulder (USA), July 1964 — WMO/IUGG Symposium on Research and Development Aspects of Long-range Forecasting. In the front row, from left to right, are Professor Smagorinsky, Mr J. S. Sawyer, Professor Flohn, the Editor, Professor J. Bjerknes and Professor R. C. Sutcliffe

H.T. — I would like to hear some of your reflections on the JOC; how it worked and how the personalities in different specialized fields got along together.

J. S. — I think it worked very well, and let me tell you one of the main reasons for its success. WMO and ICSU were magnanimous when it came to constituting the JOC. They realized that the committee would work best if it could enjoy the advantages and ignore the disadvantages inherent in the structure and functioning of the parent bodies. This meant that the JOC was given far more autonomy than would usually have been the case. Moreover, the membership was chosen extremely carefully; although the various disciplines were properly represented, each person was there because he had demonstrated a high degree of personal scientific and managerial wisdom. To me, the committee was in itself a superbly successful experiment in institutional interaction and in getting things done. It was unique, and perhaps no other group has had responsibility for such a big and ambitious programme as GARP. Take the contrasting backgrounds of the two Americans on the JOC—Verner Suomi and myself: Suomi's expertise was in observational techniques and mine in atmospheric modelling. I said a moment ago how observations and theory go hand in hand, and indeed Suomi saw that his observations had to have a rationale in the overall project. On the other hand I had to recognize that there were limitations on what could be observed, and so tried to measure the impact of data shortfalls. 1 often think of Pierre Morel's constructive role. He had no particular meteorological background, he was a physicist engaged in satellite technology and instrumentation, so he came into the JOC with perhaps fewer built-in prejudices than most of us. Therefore, whereas the members were all highly competent in their respective fields and obviously had well-defined opinions, they were never intractable, and everyone looked for the rational solution which would best fit the specified objectives of GARP.

H.T. — How do you rate the success achieved by the Global Weather Experiment, since this was the culmination which GARP aspired to?

J.S. — It is still a little too early to say. We have not yet completed analysing data for the Level III-b set5. You see, we had to develop a four-dimensional data assimilation technique as we were going along, and this was very difficult. The cost in developing and operating the analysis system was about seven million dollars. I think GFDL will probably re-analyse the Level II-b data sets in about five years' time, and I am quite sure that it will be done somewhat differently then. Even though the second analysis run will still be expensive—I imagine between three and four million dollars—it will still be worthwhile because we are not going to have another comparable data set for a long time to come. So to come back to your original question, the Global Weather Experiment, and GARP as a whole, was certainly a technological success because it stimulated development and taught us a lot about how best to use conventional and new facilities. It was also a success in that it has demonstrated that scientists from different institutes and different countries can work harmoniously together. But the scientific value of the data will only really come to the test when they are used in phenomenological studies on monsoons, tropical cyclogenesis and other distinct features, and when parallel prediction runs are made with and without certain types of data to ascertain their impact.

H.T. — What are your views on the limits of predictability?

J.S. — In the mid-1960s quite a lot of very good meteorologists were convinced that deterministic prediction beyond two or three days was not possible. I believe our report at Moscow brought new hope to many. When I gave the Wexler Memorial Lecture at the end of the 1960s, I was able to show that predictability was inherently possible well beyond four days—we had actually made 21-day predictions by then, and it seemed clear that the potential range of deterministic predictions was a week or more. Kikuro Miyakoda has been very active in this field, and a few years ago he was able to show that in certain cases predictability may extend to a month. I believe our results were instrumental in giving the authorities concerned the confidence to set up the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts. When I talk about predictability, I do not mean a forecast of an instantaneous state a month ahead, but rather averages taken around that time. Also I should emphasize that only certain situations seem to be susceptible of prediction over the longer time period; we do not know exactly what they are, but one may well be the mode which gives rise to blocking.

Munich (Federal Republic of Germany), July 1972 — Participants in the seventh session of the Joint Organizing Committee for the Global Atmospheric Research Programme





Munich (Federal Republic of Germany), July 1972 — Participants in the seventh session of the Joint Organizing Committee for the Global Atmospheric Research Programme. Standing, left to right: Dr J. M. Wallace, Dr W. L. Godson, Professor K. Hasselmann, Dr G. B. Tucker, Dr M. Tepper, Professor P. Morel, Professor V. Suomi, Dr V. Meleshko, Professor J. Smagorinsky, Professor R. W. Stewart, Professor B. Bolin, Dr P. R. Pisharoty, Professor B. R. Doos, Academician A. M. Oboukhov, Mr S. Ruttenberg, Professor V. A. Bugaev. Front row: Professor E. M. Dobryshman, Dr A. H. Glaser, Mr J. S. Sawyer, Professor K. Gambo, Dr A. Robert, Dr J. C. Kuettner, Professor F. Möller

It is of great interest to find out why some modes give better predictability than others, and we are now engaged in just that work. We find that some important ideas of Lorenz and Charney are beginning to be borne out. As regards seasonal-range forecasts, we are doing some work on this also; not many other groups are at present, but I think interest is growing and this time frame may soon get more attention. I find the interannual range very exciting and with good potential when you consider what we are discovering about El Nino and the Southern Oscillation. If I were a young scientist again, this is where I would want to be. The opportunities for scientific progress are great and the practical applications are fantastic.

H.T. — What contact do you have with the operational NWP group in Washington, D.C.

J.S. — In the first place there is the usual sort of communication that you find between operational and research workers. But fairly recently the National Meteorological Center has been following our work with much greater interest. You see, the operational people cannot adopt a new method in a matter of a few days or weeks; a system has to be developed and tested out, so that there is a lag of perhaps a year or two between a scientific advance and its application in routine forecasting. They were impressed by the way we were able to help the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts who sent people over here to study our models and to utilize some aspects of them in refining their own. We have had some encouraging results, but not yet firm enough for us to be able to recommend to the NMC a new concept for operational use.

H.T. — You said a moment ago that the staff of the GFDL numbers about 85. How is this broken down, and what is your annual budget?

J.S. — We have about 17 top-level scientists, 35 professional associates, 20 computer technicians and operators, plus secretaries, librarians, etc. All are government employees. Then there are some 20 students at various stages of their Ph.D. course, about ten visiting scientists and a few members from Princeton University faculties which are located here. The total number of people working here is therefore 130 or thereabouts. The Laboratory's budget is approximately ten million dollars a year, about half of which goes to pay rent for the computer.

H.T. — Could you please outline how you progressed from general circulation to climate modelling studies?

J.S. — Our first model was very similar to Philipps's, except that we used primitive equations so that we could study the non-geostrophic mechanics of the circulation. Then we started making the models more sophisticated in terms of the physics, adding radiation algorithms, coupling the troposphere and stratosphere, refining the lower boundary layer, representing the oceans, the continents and mountains, and accounting for the essential differences between the northern and southern hemispheres. This was built up step by step so that results accorded with contemporary terrestrial climate records, which are about the only cast-iron verifying data we have. Some people maintain that you can model climate with a one-dimensional model, and of course this is true. But simple models are good for testing out simple mechanisms, whereas in order to gain full insight into the climate system we must have a comprehensive interactive model. It has been traditional to regard climate as relating only to the conditions felt by a human being in his natural habitat, but clearly the concept extends far beyond that, since we have also to consider average conditions over the oceans (or perhaps even beneath the sea surface) and at least up to the stratosphere.

H.T. — How do you regard the problem of increased atmospheric CO2?

J.S. — This is generally treated in a global context, but even if the CO2 concentration increases uniformly over the world, the strongest effects will be felt locally. For instance, you may get an expansion of the subtropical belt and changes in storm-tracks, precipitation and ice cover. These local or regional consequences are much more important than a global mean temperature change, since they determine such factors as what crops you are going to be able to grow at a certain spot.

H.T. — What other elements have a potentially significant influence on climate?

J.S. — Water vapour is of critical importance, and its quantity will increase as a result of the CO2 increase. There are several particulate and gaseous constituents of the atmosphere—some of them man-made—whose effects are now believed to be comparable with that of CO2. Although these effects are not all in the same direction, it seems that the majority tend to enhance rather than counteract the CO2 effect. In the past, the kind of aerosols people mostly thought about were those injected into the stratosphere by volcanic eruptions, and of course the effect of these ran counter to the CO2 effect. But I am convinced that even now we do not know the whole story, and that although the present evidence does give a good deal of weight to the hypothesis of a substantial warming at the Earth's surface, some new factors will continue to be discovered which will keep on altering our assessment of the overall impact. What I am trying to say is that we must remain vigilant, because the potential consequences are far-reaching.

H.T. — And to further our understanding?

J.S. — To further our understanding we need more theoretical work and more observations. History shows that progress in theory goes hand in hand with increased empirical knowledge; you need the observations to verify your theories, and theoretical knowledge guides you in choosing the most intelligent observations. The main scientific hurdles have been postulated for quite some time now. The atmosphere/ ocean interaction immediately comes to mind—back in 1965 we started building the earliest coupled ocean/atmosphere model and the problem is not solved yet, but it is encouraging to know that now other groups are tackling it. Atmospheric ozone is another field for study; the photochemical and dynamic interactions in both the stratosphere and troposphere. The cloud formation process and its role in the radiation balance is yet another. Our models are still unable to simulate some aspects of climate that are important for predictive applications or tests.

H.T. — You have received so many honours and awards that I shall not ask you to enumerate them all, but which are the ones that mean most to you?

J.S. — That is a tough question. Each one means a lot because it was intended to represent something distinct. When I look at my awards collectively, there is no doubt in my mind that I am overvalued, that I have gotten more than my fair share of recognition. The American Meteorological Society's Carl-Gustav Rossby Research Medal is about the highest honour a meteorologist can get in the USA, and I am in very distinguished company there. One is always pleased to have recognition from other countries, so that the awards conferred on me in the Federal Republic of Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom were especially gratifying. But I suppose it is the IMO Prize which has a very special significance because I was chosen from the largest imaginable pool of candidates—world-wide and also with respect of function, because it includes those from the fields of operations, research and administration. I feel very humble when I see the list of recipients of the IMO Prize.

H.T. — So now you are on the point of leaving the post of director of the GFDL which you have held for 27 years. How do you feel about it?

J.S. — Nostalgic and rather sad, naturally. I was originally asked to organize a laboratory, but stayed on as director perhaps longer than I should have. As I said earlier, I gave up the chance of a career in higher scientific management 13 years ago, but never regretted it. I have seen the Laboratory grow, not just in size but more importantly in quality; I always felt it far more rewarding to try to 'discover' somebody rather than take on a scientist who already had a reputation, and I greatly enjoyed the experience of watching and sometimes guiding the career of a person until he or she became something of a leading international figure. And it has been tremendously satisfying to see these people working together; the totality somehow seems stronger than the sum of the parts. Several other institutions were established on the strength of the success of the GFDL, and that is very flattering. So you can see that it is not easy for me to leave. But, as perhaps you know, I had a heart attack ten years ago and seriously thought of giving up then. To do a job really well one has to get completely involved—emotionally as well—and as Laboratory director I was under stress all the time. I learned to place value on my time and to do only the things which really had to be done. Soon after my heart attack, Bernhard Haurwitz wrote to me. To paraphrase his advice: 'Well, Joe; now you can say "no" without explaining', and that proved to be a very useful tip. I was anxious to leave things as tidy as I could for my successor, and I think this is a good moment to hand over. The Laboratory is in as good a shape as it ever has been.

H.T. — What are your plans for the future?

J.S. — My intention is not to have any specific plans. I have plenty of personal projects which have nothing to do with meteorology. I want to read, read for enjoyment and also to learn something about certain subjects which particularly interest me like history, anthropology and economics. I have some hobbies, too, which I should like to indulge in a little more. I have been asked to give advice on several meteorological projects, but here I shall be very choosy and only take up those which really interest me.

H.T. — Finally, Professor Smagorinsky, what advice would you give to a bright young student contemplating a career in meteorology?

J.S. — First, I would advise him or her to make sure they really know what they want to do. Nowadays one does not go to college or university to learn a trade. Why do I say this? Because in my own career hardly any of the things I learned as a student are directly applicable today. If you had gone to university a couple of centuries ago and learned the fundamentals of a profession, the odds are that 50 years later you would still be doing things the same way. But today the best universities teach one how to learn, how to be critical, because the individual is going to have to rethink and relearn many times in his career. So it is important to choose a university carefully, and to enter it with that in mind. Second, it is essential that the student sets himself a very high standard of excellence, always remembering that quantity is no substitute for quality. If he opts for meteorology, he must not aim at specializing in a certain field at the expense of others. Finally it is most important to learn to communicate—how to read, how to speak and how to write effectively, and this is much easier while you are still young. By virtue of their tradition the British are as good at communicating as any national group I know. Take Sir John Mason for example; but then he is an exception even for an Englishman. On the other hand Eric Eady—another Englishman—did not seem to feel he had to communicate, and this was very sad because in my opinion he was one of the most brilliant men of the century. I am glad to say that my children are getting much better training in communication in American schools than I got.

H.T. — Professor Smagorinsky, that is a very appropriate note on which to close the interview since, as you probably know, 1983 has been declared World Communication Year, and I believe that the United Nations wished to imply the broadest interpretation of the term. Thank you very much for sparing me so much of your valuable time. You mentioned a moment ago about the large number of friends throughout the world that meteorology has brought you; I very much hope that your departure from the GFDL will not definitively sever all contact with them.


  • 1 E is the quantity of energy (joules) released when a mass of m (kg) is annihilated, c is the speed of light (m s-1) in a vacuum. [back]
  • 2 Advances in Geophysics, 25 (11) pp. 3-37. Academic Press (1983). [back]
  • 3 Massachusetts Institute of Technology. [back]
  • 4 University of California at Los Angeles. [back]
  • 5 Processed non-real-time data. [back]



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