by Russell Hall • October 30, 2001
Space Science and Engineering Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Youve certainly gotten a lot of mileage out of freshman physics. According to Dr. Verner Suomi, this was a comment he heard more than once over the course of his career and he was proud of it. Using a unique combination of determination, hard work, inspiration, and those freshman physics, Suomi became known as the father of satellite meteorology. His research and inventions have radically improved forecasting and our understanding of global weather.
Verner Suomi didnt set out to invent satellite meteorology. In fact, he described his education as a mess. Growing up in Minnesota, he wanted to be an engineer. But with finances limiting his choices for higher education, he wound up at Winona State University, a teachers college in Winona, Minnesota. After teaching high school science for several years, he enrolled in a Civil Air Patrol course at the start of World War II. There, he got his first exposure to the new field of meteorology.
This new love led him to the University of Chicago, where he continued his meteorology studies and trained air cadets in basic forecasting. By 1948 he was one of the first faculty members in the Department of Meteorology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, an institution at which he would spend most of his professional life.
Suomi received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1953. For his doctoral thesis, he measured the heat budget of a cornfield; a subject that Suomi himself admitted was none too glamorous. But measuring the difference between the amount of energy absorbed and the amount of energy lost in a cornfield led him to thinking about Earths heat budget. The obvious way to measure such a thing was to use satellites, which, by the mid-1950s, were emerging as a meteorological tool. When I first began my work with meteorological satellites, no one in the Department of Meteorology seemed particularly interested; but they didnt try to impede progress in the field for which Im forever thankful.
By 1959 Suomis flat plate radiometer was in orbit. Using both satellite observations of the Earths heat balance and atmospheric cooling rates measured by net flux radiometersondes on weather balloons, Suomi established the important role played by clouds in absorbing radiated solar energy. These studies set the stage for the full-scale integration of satellites into the field of meteorology.
next: Suomis gadgets
Recognizing his talents, the National Science Foundation lured Suomi away in 1962 to serve as associate program director for their Atmospheric Sciences division. In 1964, Suomi migrated to the U.S. Weather Bureau where he served as chief scientist for one year. Then, in 1965, Suomi and Robert Parent, a professor in electrical engineering, started the Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC) at UW-Madison with funding from NASA and the National Science Foundation. SSEC was to become a hotbed of invention and research, and it was where Suomis most important and lasting invention, the spin-scan camera, was born.
As early as 1963 Suomi had understood the benefits that could be gained by observing a single weather phenomenon at frequent intervals. But these kinds of observations just werent possible using the existing, low polar-orbiting satellites. Then he read about NASAs new geostationary Advanced Technology Satellite (ATS); 22,000 miles out in space, this satellite would move in an orbit above the equator at the same speed as the Earth spins. For Suomi the spin-scan idea was suddenly simple: the weather moves, not the satellite.
This gadget, as Suomi affectionately called all his inventions, allowed scientists to observe weather systems as they developed instead of glimpsing small bits at odd intervals. Satellite sensing technology was suddenly transformed from the production of interesting snapshots into the gathering of meaningful, quantitative data. It is no exaggeration to say that this invention revolutionized satellite meteorology. The weather satellite images that the public around the world sees on the evening news and relies on to protect them from natural disasters are a direct result of Suomis invention.
Suomi and Parent saw their spin-scan camera launched on ATS-1 in 1966. Mounted aboard the spin-stabilized satellite, the camera scanned a small strip of the Earth with each rotation. By tilting the camera slightly for the next rotation, an image of Earth could be created in less than 30 minutes.
Now it was possible to measure and track air motion, cloud heights, rainfall, even pollution and natural disasters. This technology soon became an operational necessity. It helped to improve the accuracy of forecasting and has saved many thousands of lives over the years. While the original spin-scan design is no longer in use in the United States, Suomis basic concept has been adopted for many satellites and space probes. These were built for NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as well as the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Japanese Meteorological Agency.
By 1967, the spin-scan pictures were in color and by 1971 work had begun on an instrument that would profile the atmospheres temperature and water vapor from geostationary satellites. The Visible-Infrared Spin-Scan Radiometric Atmospheric Sounder (VAS) was a modification of the original spin-scan design with additional detectors for the proper spectral bands. By observing temperature and moisture structures, Suomi hoped to improve the prediction of severe weather.
When the VAS was finally launched in 1980 aboard the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-4 (GOES-4) satellite, it performed with the accuracy Suomi had predicted in his original 1971 proposal. The geostationary sounder remains the only instrument able to observe severe storms over regions of hundreds of thousands of square miles. Suomis work proved both the need for sounders and their feasibility. This technology is continued today with the GOES-8, -9, and -10 sounder instruments.
With the advent of these new tools, the flow of meteorological data quickly became an overwhelming flood. Experiments conducted under the Global Atmospheric Research Program (GARP) added to the already vast amount of data. To make sense of all this, or as he put it, to try to get a drink from the fire hydrant, Suomi became the driving force behind the development of a computer system that could gather and handle the vast amount of imagery and data.
The Man-computer Interactive Data Access System (McIDAS), like so many of his ideas, just popped into his head. As he watched a football game on television, he realized that what he really wanted was an instant replay of weather pictures. He wanted to slow them down, replay them, and have a computer analyze them. With this simple concept, he went to SSECs engineers and programmers. In 1972 Suomi introduced McIDAS.
McIDAS proved invaluable in analyzing wind data collected during the First GARP Global Experiment (FGGE) in 1978. Instrumental in planning the experiments objectives and processes, Suomi came up with the idea of using observed cloud movement to determine wind speed and direction, especially over the tropics. McIDAS is in use today by the National Storm Prediction Center, the National Weather Service, the National Transportation Safety Board, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and many other government agencies and private companies, including meteorological centers in Spain, Australia, and Japan.
Dr. Suomis interest in satellite meteorology wasnt confined to Earth. After developing ways to measure Earths atmospheric circulation, it seemed a natural extension to apply this technology to space probes. He was involved in the exploration of Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus. Dr. Suomi and other scientists at SSEC designed and built net flux radiometers and other instruments that were used aboard the Pioneer probe to Venus in 1978 and on other probes.
While Suomi was indeed a giant of modern science, as UW-Madison Provost described him, he never let his intellect stand in the way of communicating clearly. He was first and foremost a teacher, able to explain difficult concepts clearly and without condescension. This list of his former students reads like a Whos Who of the younger generation of meteorologists. His enthusiasm and encouragement may yet have a far greater impact than his monumental achievements.
Suomis achievements earned him a National Medal of Science, awarded by President Jimmy Carter in 1977; the Franklin Medal in 1984; the Charles Franklin Brooks Award from the American Meteorological Society in 1980; election to the National Academy of Engineering in 1966; a lifetime achievement award from the International Meteorological Organization; and numerous other national and international awards.
Fox, Robert J., Terri Gregory, Russell Hall, Jean Philips, and Tony Wendricks: Verner E. Suomi Memorial Volume., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 27 pp.