Interview With Professor R. C. Sutcliffe


To make this interview, the Editor of the WMO Bulletin had to fly to London and then travel on to Bletchley, almost an hour by train. At Bletchley station, Professor Sutcliffe was waiting. He looked much younger than his 77 years and wore a peaked cap. He was full of life and humour and he drove rather fast. A visitor newly arrived from the continent may perhaps be excused his initial consternation at being driven on the wrong side of the road until he realizes that in England everyone is doing it. The Sutcliffes' cottage is a charming period house well over two hundred years old. Upon entering, even moderately tall people need to bend their heads since the entrance and the ceiling are rather low. Yet the house has been beautifully renovated and furnished with good taste. Here then, in these beautiful and peaceful surroundings, Reggie and Eve Sutcliffe have chosen to live. Perhaps one reason for their remarkable fitness is that they frequently have to chase out the neighbouring farmer's livestock which are browsing in their garden.

Professor R. C. Sutcliffe






Professor R. C. Sutcliffe

Reginal Cockcroft Sutcliffe was born in Wales in 1904, but soon after this his family returned to their native Yorkshire. His early education was at Whitcliffe Mount School at Cleckheaton; he went on to the University of Leeds to study mathematics and obtained his doctorate from the University College of North Wales at Bangor. He was soon employed at the United Kingdom Meteorological Office and served at home and in Malta. There he worked for a time with Professor Tor Bergeron, the well-known Swedish meteorologist of the Bergen school. Sutcliffe's book Meteorology for Aviators1, which first appeared in 1939, brought him renown. It was a delight both to pilots and meteorologists, and quickly became a best-seller, being translated into several languages. In 1938 and 1939 Sutcliffe published a few papers dealing with divergence in the atmosphere and tackling the general problems of development on a systematic three-dimensional basis. This was a novel line of inquiry; although purely dynamical in nature, there were practical possibilities for forecasting. In all his early works, Sutcliffe realized the vital need for upper-air information. His use of vector analysis techniques was soon taken up, subsequently giving way to the use of tensors for some aspects of atmospheric dynamics.

During the Second World War he served with the Royal Air Force, in France from 1939 to 1940, then as senior meteorological officer of No. 3 Group Bomber Command from 1941 to 1944, and finally as chief meteorological officer for the RAF in Germany from 1944 to 1946 with the rank of Group Captain. It is interesting to note that two of his collaborators during his tour of duty in France were D. A. Davies, who certainly needs no introduction to readers of the WMO Bulletin, and P. J. Meade, also known to many meteorologists around the world. Already Sutcliffe was a very inspiring person, full of ideas and enthusiasm, greatly respected for his views on synoptic analysis and famed for looking ahead and foreseeing meteorological events. Those who served under his leadership still remember that rewarding experience. One of the people who worked with him was Professor O. Godart of Belgium, then an Air Force officer. In his paper of 1947 A contribution to the problem of development2, Sutcliffe acknowledged that one of his results — the new equation of continuity — was due to Godart. One of the most important features of the 1947 paper was the use of pressure (p) as the vertical co-ordinate instead of height (z). This approach, now widely adopted, was indeed a departure from conventional methods, and there was some sceptism as to its validity, since pressure varies not only in the z direction but also in the x and y directions. Sutcliffe was unshaken by such criticism, and his presentation of the paper to the Royal Meteorological Society was an important milestone.

Next Sutcliffe set about building up a forecasting research team. He became the Meteorological Office's first director of research in 1957, and had the onerous task of creating what was virtually an institute of meteorology within the framework of a governmental establishment. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society and served as president of the Royal Meteorological Society. By now, Sutcliffe's name was also familiar beyond the shores of his native country. He was president of WMO's former Commission for Aerology from 1957 to 1961. The WMO Executive Committee chose him as a member of its Advisory Committee, a prestigious body composed of 12 eminent scientists and experts. Sutcliffe made invaluable contributions to the WMO Education and Training Programme. The WMO Guidelines for the education and training of personnel in meteorology and operational hydrology contains many important inputs from him.

When Sutcliffe became Professor of Meteorology at the University of Reading, he had to build up the University's new department of meteorology, a challenging task not without its difficulties. Nevertheless, he managed to launch an excellent research and training programme, one which has brought notable help to students from developing countries.

Although Sutcliffe is mostly known for his studies in synoptic and dynamic meteorology, he has also done valuable work in other fields such as atmospheric ozone, hydrology and tropical meteorology. He is an able mathematician. His published works run into three figures.

In his own country, Sutcliffe received the Buchan Prize from the Royal Meteorological Society in 1950, and its highest award, the Symons Gold Medal, in 1955. The same year, the Physical Society awarded him the Charles Chree Medal. On the international scene, Sutcliffe received the IMO Prize in 1963 and honorary membership of the American Meteorological Society in 1975.

Sutcliffe is a man of excellent humour, and if occasionally his lively wit is somewhat abrasive, any victims of his remarks quickly recover and retain their goodwill. He has proved to be exceptionally capable as a conference chairman.

The interview took place on Wednesday 25 February 1981. We are most grateful to Professor Sutcliffe for having agreed to collaborate in this series. The Editor greatly appreciated the warm hospitality extended to him, and also wishes to record his gratitude to Mr. P. J. Meade for his valuable assistance in preparing for the interview.

H.T. — Professor Sutcliffe, at what stage in your formative years did you become interested in meteorology? Who were your professors?

R.C.S. — That is an interesting question because it allows me to explain that in Britain at that time there was no formal training in meteorology, either in a university or in the Meteorological Office. The Met. Office recruited university graduates with degrees in physics or mathematics and then placed them in one of its branches, such as climatology, instruments or weather forecasting, and left them to pick up the subject as they went along, through experience and reading. There was no formal training in meteorology in Britain before the Second World War. At the outbreak of war, a training school had to be created to form recruits to meet the rapidly expanding wartime demand for meteorological services. The first department of meteorology was probably that of Imperial College in London, where there had been one part-time professor before David Brunt was appointed full-time professor in 1934. However, even here there was no formal training, only postgraduate work. So I had no professors of meteorology.

H.T. — When did you join the United Kingdom Meteorological Office? What positions did you hold, especially before the Second World War?

R.C.S. — When I had obtained my doctorate in 1927 I had to find a job. It happened to be the time of the great depression in Britain and elsewhere. Therefore, it was not easy for a graduate in mathematics to find employment apart from schoolteaching. However, I applied for a vacancy in the Meteorological Office and was interviewed by Brunt. I was taken on and assigned to the headquarters division in London. There my duties during the first year consisted in some climatological work in connexion with future air routes and some elementary work in the forecasting division. Then I was posted to Malta—this must have been in 1928—and remained there for the next four years. I was extremely fortunate because Professor Tor Bergeron was there under contract from the British authorities to study the meteorology of the Mediterranean in the light of the new theories of fronts and air masses. Thus I soon came under his influence, and learned much about synoptic meteorology, including many new ideas and theories. This has stood me in good stead all my life, infusing in me the sense of being one step ahead of others in the Met. Office. In 1929 I married a Welsh girl that I had met in Bangor (North Wales). After four years in Malta I was posted back to England and took charge of the meteorological centre at Felixstowe which was at that time a flying boat base. We provided a forecasting service for the flying boat operations. After that I went back to the Air Ministry Met. Office headquarters in London for a couple of years, and then moved down to the south coast to serve as instructor at a Royal Air Force school. I remained there until the outbreak of war.

H.T. — So you had no formal meteorological training at all before or after joining the Meteorological Office. What were the facilities for research at that time?

R.C.S. — There were no research facilities in the Met. Office. Any research that was done was carried out as a voluntary part-time (or spare-time) activity. This was indeed the policy of the Director at that time, Sir George Simpson, who, although himself a famous man in research, considered that research was not the Met. Office's business. This was most unfortunate because, apart from a few special lines such as Dobson's pioneer work on ozone at Oxford University, there was no research going on in any of the British universities either. Thus systematic meteorological research in the United Kingdom was practically non-existent until after the war. Nevertheless, because of my personal interest I wrote one or two papers whilst in Malta which were followed by a few more which I wrote during my stay in Felixstowe. If, during this pre-war period, I gained some recognition as a research worker, it was purely on the basis of voluntary work and not part of my official function. In London, my duties consisted mainly in examining air pilots and navigators in meteorology. A major problem was that there were no textbooks available for these people.

H.T. — In your early years as a practising forecaster in the Meteorological Office, you had much to do with aviation. This was not as well organized as it is today, simply because elaborate air traffic control communications and other facilities were not available. As a consequence, the relationship between pilots and forecasters was very close, as was evident from the care taken over pre-flight forecasting and post-flight debriefing. Did this special relationship help you towards a greater understanding of atmospheric processes or suggest lines for fundamental research?

R.C.S. — As a matter of fact, whilst I was in Malta we did not have much contact with aviation. We were forecasting mainly for the British naval fleet operating in the Mediterranean, and here everything was done by telephone; there was no real briefing or debriefing. I gained experience of weather conditions in the Mediterranean basin, and the peculiar ways in which depressions develop in that area. But when I later came in touch with aviation, yes, talking to the crews certainly did make me aware of problems which I had not previously thought of. One thing which struck me as particularly important was for the pilots and navigators to have a sound understanding of meteorology. Of course, this was widely accepted, and even in those days every pilot and civil navigator had to pass an examination in meteorology before he could get a certificate. But, as I have already said, there was little suitable literature to help them.

H.T. — So this led you to compile your book Meteorology for Aviators which became the standard work for pilots and navigators. Young graduates also found the book invaluable for its clear presentation of the basic aspects of synoptic meteorology. As its author, you became well known in meteorological and aviation circles, both in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Would you like to say something about this book, its origin and history?

R.C.S. — Thank you very much. It is always a pleasure to hear that one's work has been successful. As to its origin, I told Sir George Simpson about the lack of reading material to help aircrew candidates prepare for their examination in meteorology, and his reaction was to give me six months to write a book. He added that there was no office space available for me, so that I should have to do the job at home. This suited me excellently, and I soon established a work programme which consisted of working in the morning and evening and relaxing in the house and garden in the afternoon. I thoroughly enjoyed that six months, and the manuscript was ready on time.

H.T. — In the period 1939-1945 you were involved in the war effort. Would you like to tell us something about what you were doing during those eventful years.

R.C.S. — Shortly before the war broke out, I was given a commission in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve as a Squadron Leader in the expanding meteorological section. Soon after the beginning of the war, I was sent to France with a more senior officer, Group Captain F. Entwistle, who later became well known in international meteorology and joined the ICAO. At the meteorological headquarters to which I was posted in France, one of the flight lieutenants was D. A. Davies, now Sir Arthur, Secretary-General of WMO from 1955 to 1979. We were there throughout the period of the so-called 'phoney war', and were not then much involved in military activities. We were evacuated shortly before the famous retreat from Dunkerque. Then I and another group of meteorologists flew out again to the still-surviving headquarters west of Paris, and were sent from there to another headquarters at Salon (near Marseilles) which had been set up to control bombing raids over northern Italy. The collapse of France put an end to this, and again we were evacuated, this time through Marseilles and Gibraltar. My wife was very relieved when I eventually turned up, our ship having had to zig-zag its way from Gibraltar to Liverpool to avoid the attention of U-boats. That was the end of the first phase of the war. I was then posted to No. 3 Group, Bomber Command, in East Anglia. For nearly four years I was engaged intensively in preparing weather forecasts for all bombing operations over Germany, mostly nighttime raids. It was very concentrated work because I was on duty virtually all the time, and anyway I liked to be there during the night when the group was operating. As Bomber Command operations grew and ramified, it became necessary to ensure centralized control on a Command basis. A meteorological unit was therefore set up at Bomber Command headquarters which became a co-ordinating centre for the forecast offices at the various group bases. Although the forecast offices continued to work more or less independently, a telephone conference link-up was established, perhaps the first time that different meteorological forecast offices had been able to discuss the forecast and arrive at a consensus. This was indeed essential, since we had to give consistent advice for operational purposes. Incidentally, this telephone link-up idea was copied later for the D-day landings in 1944 to co-ordinate information given to the British and American airborne and naval forces. Yes, the Bomber Command telephone conferences became a recognized part of our work. I took part practically every day in those years. Eventually, the forecasting of the upper winds (which were, of course, one of the most crucial elements) was co-ordinated and centralized in Bomber Command headquarters where a large comprehensive upper-air forecasting section grew up.

H.T. — In one of your papers published in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society in 1938 or 1939, you indicated that you were taking a three-dimensional view of atmospheric processes, even though the available data then consisted almost exclusively of surface observations. In this paper you discussed the dynamical implications of wind changes in the vertical—that is, the thermal wind—and you propounded a number of tentative guidelines. Would you like to look back on this paper and discuss any lasting effects it may have had on your thinking?

R.C.S. — I suppose it was whilst I was in Felixstowe and during the next two or three years that I began thinking about the central meteorological problems—the development of depressions and anticyclones, vertical motion, divergence, and such things. At that time there were few, if any, studies of dynamical meteorology which were of use in practical forecasting. The Norwegian frontal and air-mass theories were almost completely non-dynamical; the concepts of air masses, their modification, and their weather features were essentially physical. The description of fronts was also essentially non-dynamical, and nowhere in the early theories could one find an explanation as to why a depression developed as a wave on a front, or why the warm air rose up the frontal surface. So the principles of frontal and air-mass analysis, as I had learned them, had very little, if any, dynamical content. This was a significant weakness. Napier Shaw's books on meteorology3 which were being published at this time contained practically no relevant dynamics to explain the development of depressions. Brunt's justly famous book on dynamical meteorology4 which first came out in 1934 also lacked dynamics on the synoptic scale. It did develop the geostrophic wind equation and the general equation of motion, but there was practically no dynamics relevant to the synoptic problem. Meteorologists were, in fact, discussing the problems from the wrong angle. Much thought was given to the question of why pressure fell and where the air went. When the problem was properly analysed, the hydrostatic fall of pressure at the Earth's surface could be seen to be a secondary effect. The vertical integral of divergence (which, of course, was known to produce the change of surface pressure) was, to a first approximation, zero. This was a most important step in the explanation. But even in a deep depression, the fall of pressure is only about five per cent so that this was the wrong question. The real question to ask was: Why did you have convergence and divergence in the systems and why did you have vertical motion, bearing in mind that the vertical integral of divergence equals zero as first approximation? Bjerknes's tendency equation was perhaps one of the most famous equations in meteorology, yet it was also a misleading one. It did harm, because it conveyed a wrong impression. According to Bjerknes's equation pressure tendency was divided into two parts; one was due to the temperature advection and the other to divergence. But variations in the pressure at the Earth's surface are not physically divisible in this way. A change of temperature in a column of air does not affect the pressure at the Earth's surface. You can heat the whole column but its weight remains the same. So this is irrelevant. The division of the mathematical expression (the divergence of momentum) into a divergence and a density effect is physically misleading. So when one came to think about a model, the clue was already there in the work of certain previous workers, for instance W. H. Dines, who realized that, to explain what was known about the structures of depressions with a low tropopause, a low central pressure and a warm stratosphere, there was a need for a three-dimensional model with divergence in the middle and convergence at the bottom which were roughly in balance. Starting from there, one then had to think about why you should have divergence in the upper troposphere, and the clue to that was in realizing that the geostrophic wind (apart from the so-called β-effect) is non-divergent, so that divergence is a question of the ageostrophic wind, which is directly proportional to the acceleration turned through a right angle. Indeed, the geostrophic equation written as the ageostrophic wind equal to the acceleration turned through a right angle is perhaps the most illuminating dynamical equation of synoptic meteorology. Divergence is thus linked directly with acceleration, so it is the field of acceleration that you have to study. It can be divided into the local and the advective form of acceleration, and it was by looking at it in that way that I developed my ideas.

H.T. — Military requirements in wartime laid very heavy responsibilities on national Meteorological Services, and they were given much help in expanding their facilities so that the best possible meteorological advice could be provided to military and civil defence forces. Of course, there were large areas from which no data were available, but on the other hand networks of surface and upper-air stations did provide a wealth of data in certain regions, and for the first time synoptic meteorology became three-dimensional in operational use. This must have given considerable impetus to the science of meteorology. Would you like to comment on that?

R.C.S. — At the outbreak of war we had no synoptic upper-air information from Britain, except for one aircraft ascent in England. The radiosonde was just starting to be developed in some countries, but we mostly relied on measurements by aircraft in the early days. Upper-air information was vital for a proper understanding of the atmosphere. Remember that the basic dynamical equations had been developed and actually used by Richardson way back in the 1920s, but they were subsequently largely ignored by practising meteorologists for the very good reason that they did not have the necessary data. It was only when upper-air information became available that attempts could be made to apply three-dimensional dynamical methods. By the end of the war, forecasting based on three-dimensional analysis had become possible over much of Europe and the Atlantic and a few other operational zones, but not elsewhere.

H.T. — When you took charge of forecasting research in the Meteorological Office, you had to build these activities up from practically nothing. How did you set about this formidable task?

R.C.S. — It had been Sir Nelson Johnson's policy as Director to develop research activities in the Met. Office before the war, but the war came too soon for this to be put into effect. After the war I was very lucky to be chosen to take charge of weather forecasting research. It was the first time that provision had been made for such functions in the national Meteorological Service of the United Kingdom, or even in North America. I was given a staff of between six and eight scientifically qualified people and a new building close to the Central Forecasting Office in Dunstable and I was told to get on with it. One of my senior staff, who was to become my successor, was Mr. J. S. Sawyer, also well known in WMO circles. We started on two lines of research, short-range and extended-range forecasting. For extended-range forecast studies we began to draw weather maps for the whole northern hemisphere, and this subsequently became routine. As for short-range forecast investigations, we had to tackle numerous problems, applying my own dynamical ideas and studying the distribution of rainfall associated with depressions. I took a special interest in research into extended-range forecasting. Of course, this was before the days of computers. We developed a prediction technique using the surface pressure pattern, the 500-hPa contour pattern and the 1000/500-hPa thickness pattern, treating the thickness (or thermal) pattern as being modified by advection.

Dr. Sutcliffe describes features of the synoptic chart







Dr. Sutcliffe describes features of the synoptic chart to His Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who was paying a visit to the Central Forecasting Office in June 1962 (Crown copyright)

In a sense, we were doing what the computer now does very efficiently—pushing the thickness pattern on a little way, modifying the surface pattern, and going on step by step.

H.T. — You were able to give research efforts a considerable boost by the publication in 1947 of your famous paper A contribution to the problem of development. I have often wondered whether this was largely a theoretical exercise or an attempt (a very successful one) to provide theoretical support for forecasting techniques that had evolved from practical experience. Can you recall the circumstances in which you prepared the paper?

R.C.S. — Much to my delight, the theory came up for discussion only last week at the Royal Meteorological Society. The basic concepts in that 1947 paper are really much the same as those in my 1939 paper—the idea of the field of divergence. In some ways the earlier paper was more satisfactory because there I was dealing with the field of acceleration directly. In the 1947 paper I tried to put it in terms of vorticity, which turned out to be rather disappointing because certain parts of the divergence field cannot be treated in this way. Anyhow, the whole idea had been ticking over in my mind all through the war, in fact during the war I had been able to write some papers which had been published internally, and parts of these were incorporated in the 1947 paper. For a short time during the war one of my collaborators was the Belgian, O. Godart, who was a very able mathematician. He worked hard at the dynamical equations, and had we been able to continue he might well have become renowned as a dynamical meteorologist. However, the course of the war brought our association to an end. My intention was that these ideas should be used in practical forecasting, and I think they were of practical use. You could study the fields of motion, you could recognize where upper-level divergence and convergence were taking place largely from inspection of the upper field, and you could thereby have a good idea of where development was likely to occur. To a large extent this is still valid today.

H.T. — In the days before computers, much of the research work was done by an individual. If teams were involved, they were relatively small. How were ideas exchanged and discussed in those days? Did you fly kites and see how other colleagues reacted?

R.C.S. — Quite early on we began having weekly colloquia in the department where we would discuss the work that each member of the staff was doing. There were also daily map discussions on forecasting problems. These gatherings were quite lively occasions. I consider it to be of vital importance for sound progress in research that a person has to justify every step he has taken against the criticism of his well-informed colleagues.

H.T. — With the arrival of computers on the scene, you must have been responsible for initiating the development of numerical weather prediction in the United Kingdom. How did you tackle this problem, in which there were so many possible approaches?

R.C.S. — When the computer first started to be used for meteorology in the USA shortly after the war, thanks to rapid communications everyone knew about it. Thus as soon as computers became available in Britain there were people here who wanted to do likewise. In my group, it was Fred Bushby who was the most anxious to apply them to weather prediction. We first tried the barotropic model and then developed a baroclinic model of our own. This became known as the Sawyer-Bushby model. Of course I was greatly interested in it, and did make some modest contributions.

H.T. — In 1953 you became responsible for all fields of research in the Meteorological Office. Would you comment on the national activities at that time, both in the Met. Office and in universities, and the Royal Meteorological Society?

R.C.S. — After the war, meteorological research in Britain and many other countries developed at a tremendous rate. In the Met. Office, under the Director-General there were now two directors, one for services and the other for research. The Research Directorate had branches covering fields such as forecasting research, physical research, boundary-layer research, turbulence and upper-air research, high-atmosphere research, and so on. Indeed, we were able to develop a research programme over pretty well the whole spectrum of atmospheric physics. The Royal Meteorological Society had continued its activities in a somewhat restricted way during the war, and soon after the war I was asked to take on the editing of the Quarterly Journal, which I did for a number of years. I was elected president of the Society in 1955. The Society was a great part of my life and it was generally accepted as being a very active organization. I was also much involved with work on national committees for IUGG and IAMAP.

H.T. — What were your contacts with WMO?

R.C.S. — I suppose my first contact was when I attended the first post-war session of the IMO Aerological Commission in Toronto in 1947. In fact my main link with WMO was through the Commission for Aerology. In due course, I became secretary, and later president of this Commission.

H.T. — You were also a member of the WMO Advisory Committee which was set up by Congress in 1963.

R.C.S. — Yes, that was a good committee. It is a pity that it lasted so few years because it had good representative scientists on it. I firmly believe that WMO needs to have as close a contact as possible with the academic world, and such a board consisting mostly of academics could only be of value.

H.T. — What were some of the highlights of research activities during the dozen or so years that you were Director of Research?

R.C.S. — I had about 50 scientists in my organization, all very busy. My responsibility was mainly to approve general lines of activity and obtain the necessary facilities for the work. The development of numerical forecasting was very important, and this was mostly left in the capable hands of people like Sawyer and Bushby. Most of the work on the physics of the atmosphere was associated with other branches of the Office. The leading worker in that field was G. D. Robinson who is now in the USA. Amongst his responsibilities was high-atmosphere research and the development of sensors for sounding the atmosphere from satellites. We put in a great deal of effort, and it was very profitable that we kept in touch with these latest developments in meteorology.

H.T. — Remarkable progress has been achieved during the past 25-35 years in almost every specialized field of meteorology. For example, atmospheric ozone, formerly so neglected, has now assumed considerable importance in the context of climate changes and its indispensability as a shield from ultraviolet radiation. What are your comments on this diversified progress?

R.C.S. — Without in any way belittling the efforts and ingenuity of early workers, who had not the benefit of the prodigious tools of modern technology, I believe that it would not be too much to say that meteorology is a post-war subject. Since the war, research efforts have increased not by one, but by at least two orders of magnitude. Advances have been made in pretty well every branch, which has quite altered the complexion of the subject. The development of the computer had a tremendous effect. Nowadays things can be done which were totally impossible before the war. I derive particular personal satisfaction at the interest at last being taken in general atmospheric circulation theories applied to problems of climate and the possible time-range limits of weather forecasting. These always seemed to me to be the central problems of meteorology, if you define this as being the science of the Earth's atmosphere. Early in my career as chief of research, I proposed to the Director, then Sir Nelson Johnson, that we should include climatology as a subject for the Meteorological Research Committee. Sir Nelson said 'Are you sure that climatology is a scientific subject?' I replied that perhaps a lot of climatology was not very scientific at the present time, but that it should be, because the study of the climate of the Earth is really the basic subject of meteorology. Statistics on the distribution of temperature and rainfall values set a problem which ultimately meteorologists have to solve. The separation between climatology and meteorology was a very bad thing. I am pleased to think that after 50 years they are coming together, that meteorologists realize that the climate of the Earth is their problem, and that the general circulation of the atmosphere is the same thing as a theory of climate.

H.T. — In 1965 you became Professor of Meteorology in a new department at Reading University. What led to this department being established? What problems had to be overcome in starting from scratch, drawing up teaching and research programmes?

R.C.S. —The establishment of the meteorological department at Reading University in 1965 was essentially an initiative taken by the University itself. At that time (so different from today) universities in England were being encouraged to expand. Funds were not too difficult to obtain, and Reading University realized that one interesting discipline to foster was meteorology, taking account of the fact that the Meteorological Office had moved its headquarters to Bracknell, only a few miles away. Moreover, Sir Graham Sutton, who was then the Director-General of the Meteorological Office, was also keen on developing meteorology in British universities. Thus it was that Reading University eventually decided to set up a department and create a chair in meteorology. It happened that I was coming up to the age of 60 and could, if I wished, retire from the Met. Office. Therefore I decided to apply for the post and was accepted.

Presidents of WMO technical commissions in May 1961. Left to right: Dr. P. M A. Bourke (agricultural meteorology); Mr. M. A. Kohler (hydrological meteorology); Mr. J. A. van Duijnen Montijn (maritime meteorology); Mr. C. C. Boughner (climatology); Mr. P. H. Kutschenreuter (synoptic meteorology); Dr. R. C. Sutcliffe (aerology); Dr. K. Langlo (chief of the Technical Division in the WMO Secretariat); Mr. A. Perlat (instruments and methods of observation)





Presidents of WMO technical commissions in May 1961. Left to right: Dr. P. M A. Bourke (agricultural meteorology); Mr. M. A. Kohler (hydrological meteorology); Mr. J. A. van Duijnen Montijn (maritime meteorology); Mr. C. C. Boughner (climatology); Mr. P. H. Kutschenreuter (synoptic meteorology); Dr. R. C. Sutcliffe (aerology); Dr. K. Langlo (chief of the Technical Division in the WMO Secretariat); Mr. A. Perlat (instruments and methods of observation) (WMO/Freddy Bertrand)

I had no difficulty in convincing the senate of the university that the new department should have six or more permanent teaching staff and offer a first degree in meteorology. This was the first time in the United Kingdom that a bachelor's degree had been offered with meteorology as one of its principal subjects. I had already had some experience in preparing syllabuses in the field of meteorology, and so could fairly readily put one together for the degree course. It provided for students to spend half their time on physics and half on meteorology, and to take a special examination in these two subjects. By the time I left the department five years later, there were five or six staff members, a synoptic meteorology laboratory with teleprinters so that we could have our own weather maps, and a physics laboratory where we could do all the basic experiments in atmospheric physics and thermodynamics. Today there is a good comprehensive department for teaching meteorology and a postgraduate research school.

H.T. — The department at Reading has given special attention to the field of tropical meteorology, and I know that this was one of the aims to which you accorded high priority. Would you like to explain this and comment on the progress you achieved?

R.C.S. — I am not sure that I achieved much progress, although I had it very much at heart, and did put up a scheme at one time to develop an institute of tropical research in Reading University. I thought it was very appropriate that we should do that, because we were drawing students from many parts of the world, including the tropics. After I left it was thanks to Professor R. Pearce that tropical meteorology has got a more definite place in the work of the department.

H.T. — You are known to hold strong views on education and training in meteorology. Would you care to expand briefly on this?

R.C.S. — This has always been a problem of some importance, especially in Meteorological Services. Having come into the Service at a time when there was no training in meteorology, and having had to pick up the subject myself, I realize that I went through the whole of my career with many gaps in my knowledge which ought to have been filled when I was a student. Also, I fear that many of my colleagues who came into meteorology as I did remained basically ignorant about meteorology as a science, even though they could analyse a synoptic chart and make some sort of forecast. I am convinced that meteorologists must be thoroughly educated in the subject, which is a scientific profession by definition. The Meteorological Services in many countries considered it more expedient to train their personnel themselves rather than entrust this to the university system. Whilst this might have been all right for those engaged on the various technical ancillary jobs, it must be remembered that the fundamental work is scientific, and teaching should be in the hands of expert scientists. I do not agree that advanced instruction in meteorology should be in the hands of Meteorological Services. I think this is wrong, not because the Meteorological Services are inefficient or incompetent, but because they become specialized in a form of education not integrated with the educational system of the country or the world as a whole. Consequently, the science becomes isolated and the people do not have the status which is only obtainable through a university. I would like to develop this thesis at length, but I cannot do that in a few minutes. I regard education as basic to civilization. I regard the universities as an absolutely essential part of the educational system, and I regard it as fundamental that the scientific and intellectual professions look upon the universities as the source of their basic training, and as centres of research and of scholarship in their disciplines. It is not good enough to take graduates in physics and mathematics and put them into the schools of the Meteorological Services to train them as meteorologists. In that way they do not look back upon their university as an independent source of basic knowledge but look inwards upon themselves, and lose that essential inspiration which I believe comes from a wider intellectual background. It is my conviction that the basic work of teaching in meteorology, as in other subjects, should be within the university system. If this presents difficulties, then those difficulties should be overcome.

H.T. — You played a leading part in co-ordinating hydrology with meteorology in the United Kingdom. The arrangements you laid on aroused interest in other countries. Would you like to comment on this?

R.C.S. — I developed a special interest in hydrology because it seemed to me that many of the problems of hydrology were essentially meteorological. Not just the obvious problems of precipitation and rainfall, but also evaporation from the Earth's surface and evapotranspiration were just as much meteorology as they were hydrology. The water balance problem, although basically hydrology, is equally basic to meteorology. This conviction that the two subjects are so closely interlinked led me to suggest to the Hydrological Committee certain ways in which we might collaborate more closely. Between the Hydrological Service and the Meteorological Office, I managed to achieve a very close co-operation which still exists today. One of my minor achievements was to get hydrology formally included among those disciplines from which the Royal Society would consider electing its Fellows.

H.T. — Could you say a word about some of the other outstanding figures in meteorology with whom you have come into contact?

R.C.S. — I have already mentioned my early association with Tor Bergeron. I met Jacob Bjerknes from time to time, although he did not take much part in international affairs. Carl-Gustav Rossby had a tremendous effect on me. For a few years I knew him intimately because he was the president of IAMAP at the time I was secretary. Sadly he died whilst he was still president. I consider him to have been the most stimulating personality of his generation to have entered meteorology. Jacques van Meighem, the leader in Belgium, was an excellent formulizer of mathematical meteorology and a very effective leader of any group. I met van Meighem for the first time at Brussels in 1944 when our headquarters moved there. Then I met Wouter Bleeker in Holland in 1945 when we finally crossed the Rhine. I remember he stood two metres tall and looked like a tailor's dummy, with his clothes hanging on him. He had gone through the winter of 1944/45 in a state of semi-starvation, and I was very happy to be able to take various articles of food to his house in Utrecht at that time. We became very good friends. He had a special attitude towards meteorology; he believed in the thermodynamics of the atmosphere and refused to be overwhelmed by ideas of purely dynamical processes. After the war Sir Nelson Johnson was no longer an active scientist, although he was the first President of WMO. His successor, Graham Sutton, was an inspiration in the sense that he was very enthusiastic about developing research in the Office, and succeeded in obtaining electronic computers for our use. But I must admit that at that time in Britain there were no inspiring scientists in synoptic or dynamical meteorology to compare with personalities like Bergeron, Bjerknes, Rossby, Charney or Eliassen. We had a farseeing dynamical meteorologist in England at that time in Eric Eady who produced some beautiful theoretical work on what we now know as Eady waves, but unfortunately he died young. Also I had a very fruitful collaboration with the late Professor P. A. Sheppard, who took over the Imperial College Chair of Meteorology from Sir David Brunt. We worked closely together for many years, he representing the university and the academic world and I the Meteorological Office.

H.T. — I know you have received several awards in your life. How did you feel when you received the IMO Prize?

R.C.S. — I was delighted, as one always is. I don't know why I was selected, but winners of prizes always owe something to chance, do they not? The awards which gave me greatest pleasure were my first and nearly my last. It was during the war that, to my utter astonishment, I learnt that as a Squadron Leader I had been awarded the OBE (Military) for my work in forecasting for the bombing raids. The more recent award, that of honorary fellowship of the American Meteorological Society, was again a total surprise and no less a delight.

H.T. — My final question is: 'What advice would you give to a young meteorologist of today?'

R.C.S. — That is a hard one. The advice I like to give to anyone is to remember that you're only here once, and to take every opportunity in these earlier years to increase your knowledge and develop your skills. Remember that the work you put in during these early years is probably going to be the most rewarding of any work you will ever do, and you will never be able to repair the omissions which you make now. I don't believe I have any particular advice to give to a meteorologist. I think it is a good profession and a happy profession — I always had the feeling that meteorologists as a group were a happy lot of people, and perhaps there is some truth in that. The subject is intrinsically attractive, it is related to nature and the environment, it has no unpleasant overtones and is entirely beneficial to the human race. I also think it will have a growing importance in the future, since we are creatures of the environment, and we must know more about our environment if we are going to be as successful as a species on this Earth as we have been in the past.


  • 1 Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London (1939). [back]
  • 2 Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society 73 pp. 370-383. [back]
  • 3 Manual of Meteorology. By Napier Shaw. Cambridge University Press (1926 el seq.)[back]
  • 4 Physical and Dynamical Meteorology. By David Brunt. The Macmillan Co. (New York) and Cambridge University Press (1934). [back]




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