Joseph Smagorinsky: Visionary in Numerical Weather Prediction and Climate Modeling
- Career Beginnings
- Adopting a Team Approach
- Pioneering New Methods
- A Career of Widespread Achievement
Pioneering meteorologist Joseph Smagorinsky developed influential methods for predicting weather and climate.
Dr. Joseph Smagorinsky (1924-2005), meteorologist and founding director of NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, was a pioneer in combining computers and mathematical models to make extended predictions of the weather and trends in the global climate. His work at NOAA profoundly influenced the practice of numerical weather prediction around the world. Climate models developed under his direction have led to greater understanding about humans’ capabilities to affect climate change.
A 1942 graduate of Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, he entered the military shortly afterwards and became an officer in the meteorological service of the Army Air Corps. He completed a portion of his undergraduate studies at Brown University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology during this period. Following World War II, Smagorinsky earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in meteorology from New York University. While completing his doctoral dissertation, Jule Charney, a prominent atmospheric scientist, invited Smagorinsky to the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study to examine the predictability of large-scale motions in the middle troposphere (the lower part of the atmosphere) using the only supercomputer in existence at the time.
In 1953, Smagorinsky accepted a position at the U.S. Weather Bureau and was among the pioneers of the Joint Numerical Weather Prediction Unit. Serving in a variety of positions with the Weather Bureau in Washington from 1953 to 1955, he tested and refined weather models. Based on this experience, in 1955 he was selected to head the newly formed General Circulation Research Section in order to create a simple model of the atmosphere’s general circulation and reproduce its salient features. The section was renamed the General Circulation Research Laboratory in 1959 and then renamed again as the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in 1963. The lab moved to its current home at Princeton University in 1968.
Among Dr. Smagorinsky’s many skills was attracting talented scientists to the staff of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. Two of them were climate modeler Syukuro Manabe and ocean modeler Kirk Bryan. These individuals spearheaded development of the first climate model in 1969–a general circulation model that took into account the interactions of oceans and atmosphere. By the end of the next decade, general circulation models emerged as a central tool in climate research.
Developing this first climate model was based on Dr. Smagorinsky’s belief that only a completely new approach to scientific endeavor–departing from the independent, individual mode of inquiry–would produce answers to extremely complex problems. He realized that it would take large-scale numerical modeling with teams of scientists using commonly shared high-speed computers for experiments, to achieve such a breakthrough.
Three-dimensional view of Hurricane Emily in 1993 near North Carolina as modeled by the hurricane prediction system developed under the leadership of Joseph Smagorinsky. This system provides improved predictions roughly two days in advance of a hurricane. Click image for larger view.
Dr. Smagorinsky was among the earliest researchers who sought to exploit new methods of numerical weather prediction to extend forecasting past one, or at most two, days. He published a seminal paper in 1963 on his research using primitive equations of atmospheric dynamics to simulate the atmosphere’s circulation. This paper fundamentally changed the approach to modeling physical processes that drive climate and weather. He extended early weather models to include variables like wind, cloud cover, precipitation, atmospheric pressure and radiation emanating from the earth and sun. Later, with colleagues Douglas Lilly and James Deardorff, both at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, he developed large-eddy simulation, the first practical technique to account for atmospheric turbulence in numerical models.
Dr. Smagorinsky played a leading role in planning and executing international observational and modeling projects, collectively known as the Global Atmospheric Research Program, coordinated by the World Meteorological Organization and the International Council of Scientific Unions. He was a Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society national lecturer from 1983 to 1985 and earned the International Meteorological Organization Prize from the World Meteorological Organization in 1988. He also received many awards from the American Meteorological Society, which he served as president in 1986. In 2003, he and his colleague Norman Phillips were awarded the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Earth Science. Dr. Smagorinsky was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the Presidential Scientific Advisory Committee Panel on Pollution, as well as the National Research Council’s Committee on Atmospheric Science. He also served on the faculty of Princeton University.
As stated in a 1992 bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, “Dr. Smagorinsky’s almost relentless pursuit of excellence at Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory set a standard for other laboratories and centers that have contributed immensely to the growth of meteorology as a science” throughout the world.