Verner Suomi (1915-1995)

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 SSEC’s 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 experiment’s 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.

Winds Derived from GOES
Verner Suomi developed methods of calculating wind speed and direction from a series of pictures of moving clouds. The image above shows wind vectors over the U.S. West Coast derived from Geostationary Operational Environemntal Satellite (GOES) imagery. Color corresponds to altitude (Red indicates high winds, blue mid-level winds, and yellow low altitude winds), while the number of bars on each line indicates velocity. (Image courtesy NOAA Experimental High Density Winds)

Dr. Suomi’s interest in satellite meteorology wasn’t confined to Earth. After developing ways to measure Earth’s 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 “Who’s Who” of the younger generation of meteorologists. His enthusiasm and encouragement may yet have a far greater impact than his monumental achievements.

Suomi’s 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.

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On the Shoulders of Giants
Verner Suomi
Suomi’s gadgets

Related Sites
Suomi Virtual Museum
Space-based Observations of the Earth