At 10:36 a.m. on 22 March 2014, near Oso, Washington, the earth began to move.  At first the lower section of slope rising from the North Fork Stillaguamish River slipped. Then the rise above that collapsed, ultimately sliding so fast that nothing could stand in its way. An eyewitness near the river saw water tossed aside and turn black. A 30 m high wall of turbulent earth roared across and along the valley. About 8 million cubic meters of dirt and rock buried the village of Steelhead Haven and killed 43 people. The slide ultimately dammed the river as it raced at 60 km/h along a 1 km wide, 1 km long swath. USGS_MR_Oso_Aerial_clipped_adjusted

The Oso landslide (aftermath photo above, Mark Reid/USGS) was a scientific mystery. There was no obvious geological trigger, like an earthquake. And the slope itself, while prone to slides, was not precariously steep. Meteorologically, it was a rain-free day in a week of no precipitation. However, two new studies—one of them forthcoming soon in the Journal of Hydrometeorology—show why Steelhead Haven was in the wrong place at the wrong time, both geologically and meteorologically.

An overview paper this January in Earth and Planetary Science Letters showed how the Oso landslide underwent two stages of motion. The lower slope slipped slowly for about 50 seconds until the more radical collapse from above led to a high mobility liquid state called a “debris avalanche.” As the landslide spread across the river the debris picked up more moisture. The flow of dirt and rock spread the damage far beyond the initial slip of earth. The gushing mud and rock actually splashed against the opposite slope across the river and spread back upslope on top of itself.

Previous landslides in the Oso area had never attained that extremely mobile second stage. The slope of the 180 m high rise above the river is less than 20 degrees, and scientists have found highly mobile landslides usually start with greater than 20 degree slope—typically more than 30 degrees. What made this one different?

The paper’s authors, Iverson et al. say one reason was the porous geology of local sediments and silt. This porosity may have increased suddenly as the base of the slope started to slip. Then as ground slid the pores contract, raising water pressure and increasing liquefaction that greases the skids for faster movement and more contraction. Furthermore, as rock and dirt overran the river, the slide picked up another 50,000 cubic meters of water and scoured the river bed for more debris.

But if a critical sensitivity to initial geological conditions existed why did the land give way on a sunny day like 22 March 2014 instead of during an earlier, rainier part of the season?

The analysis by Brian Henn et al. in Journal of Hydrometeorology shows that the precipitation in the three weeks before the landslide was unexceptional (such periods are expected every two years or so) if compared to the soaking that the area can get during the rainy season. But the rain was exceptional (an 88-year expected return period) when compared to similar March periods of the past, and that is a bad time to get wet.

Since March is late for the rainy season, this meant additional water charged deep soils that were already wet. Heavy rains earlier in the year encountered soils that contained less moisture. The late rains came on top of an already wet season as well as four wet years before that.


As a result, six days before the landslide soil moisture for the water year peaked and was wetter than would be expected every 40 years at that date. The soil moisture had surged beyond median levels in just a few weeks. [See figure above from Henn et al. 2015]

In other words, Oso was primed for a landslide, even on a dry day, partly because some of the rain had fallen late in the season—poor meteorological timing for the village of Steelhead Haven.


The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting published allegations this week that the terms “climate change” and “global warming” were banned from state government communications in Florida, including state-agency sponsored research studies and educational programs. The Washington Post followed with claims, for example, that a researcher was required by state officials to strike such words before submitting for publication a manuscript about a epidemiological study.

No evidence of a written policy or rule has been reported, and state officials have denied any policy of the sort. Meanwhile, the media are hunting through Florida websites trying to find state documents produced during the administration of Gov. Rick Scott with contents that would contradict the charges of an unwritten policy, imperfectly enforced.

The controversy is one in a string of recent events reminding us how much scientists rely on their freedom of expression. Most often the problem has been the freedom of government scientists to speak about their work with the public. Lately this has caused a media blizzard in Canada.

Science ethicists may argue one way or another about where the limits of public expression are for government scientists when they contradict policy goals. And certainly—as well seen most obviously in the Cold War—such goals can include national security concerns. But the AMS stance on the filtering or tampering of science for nonscientific purposes is quite clear in the Statement on Freedom of Expression:

The ability of scientists to present their findings to the scientific community, policy makers, the media, and the public without censorship, intimidation, or political interference is imperative.

Freedom of expression is essential to scientific progress. Open debate is a necessary part of science and takes place largely through the publication of credible studies vetted in peer review. Publication is thus founded on the need for freedom of expression, and it is in turn a manifestation of freedom of expression.

One might think the job of journals is to screen out unwanted science, but it’s quite the opposite. Papers are published not because they are validated as “right” so much as they are considered “worthy” of further scientific consideration. In addition, the publication process itself—which AMS knows well in its 11 scientific journals—is not just for authors to report and interpret their work. It relies on free discussion. The peer review process usually allows reviewers maximum protection of anonymity to preserve the ability to speak freely about the manuscripts being scrutinized. The papers that pass review are then the starting point for documenting objections, alternative interpretations, and confirmation, among other expressions that only matter if made accessible to other scientists through peer reviewed journals.

The AMS Statement recognizes that such freedom implies responsibility:

It is incumbent upon scientists to communicate their findings in ways that portray their results and the results of others, objectively, professionally, and without sensationalizing or politicizing the associated impacts.

Scientists are not the only ones to treasure such freedoms, of course. Society benefits from the progress of science every day. This only happens when scientists freely, promptly, and prolifically report what they find—and that means exactly what they find, not what they are told to find. The alternative is to compromise the pursuit of truth and the very foundations of our health and prosperity.

We all become victims when science is not shared and cannot flourish. The fact that climate change has deep social, economic, and political implications today means it is even more important to recognize that with increasing value of climate change science comes the increasing temptation for policy makers to co-opt and alter that science. As the AMS Statement warns, the principles of free expression “matter most—and at the same time are most vulnerable to violation—precisely when science has its greatest bearing on society.”



On February 25, the AMS released its new policy on citations for data sources in journal articles. We were all set to tell authors about it when sadly, far bigger news stole the attention of scientists everywhere. The great creator of Spock, actor Leonard Nimoy, had died. Within two days, the story of data policy had become the story of Star Trek.

“That’s not logical,” you say.

OK, we’re not Vulcan, but even a human can see this. Data. Spock. Now is the time to bring them together.

Nimoy made an improbable—some would say illogically great—impact on society masquerading as a half-Vulcan, half-human creature named Spock hurtling through space on both the small and big screens. The tributes following Nimoy’s death last week have spoken of his ability to transcend the seeming limitations of such a curious role. Nimoy embodied racial ambiguity in a time of prejudice, ennobled diplomacy and rationality in an age of war, and gave voice to those who feel alien in their own neighborhoods and schools.

Of all the dualities in Spock’s character—so brilliantly portrayed by an immigrant’s son who skipped college—arguably the most explicit was as the science officer on bridge of the “Enterprise.” His struggle to remain true to the Vulcan creed of logic without emotion was a perfect expression of science in its time. For nerds of the 1960s and ‘70s, Spock’s reliance on logic echoed the haughty aloofness with which popular culture characterized scientists of the Cold War. But through his formidable devotion to knowledge, truth, and teamwork—working through all the pointy-eared social awkwardness he faced among his crew-mates– Spock somehow made science a new kind of “cool” long before geeks made billions of bucks with computers.

The thing is, scientists are a duality, much as Spock and Captain Kirk were two sides of a coin. They get emotional about two things. One is logic. Scientists, like mathematicians, get dewy-eyed about beautiful theories, elegant proofs, and ingenious solutions. The other is data. Unlike Spock, they work themselves into a frenzy over data. The best way to make scientists swoon is to produce data that reveal secrets.

For science to live long and prosper, that data need to be treasured like a home planet. For a long time, most scientific publishers thought it was good enough that journal authors would casually mention data archives in their Acknowledgments. In this age of computer models and constantly updating technology, that’s not good enough. Now authors must use carefully sourced and dated formal citations and references that in turn lead to safeguarded, easily accessible repositories. The author’s guide online gives some helpful examples.

The new citation policy is just one step of many advancing data archive practices that were recommended in the AMS Statement on Full and Open Exchange of Data adopted in December 2013. That statement also calls on funding agencies to recognize the costs of managing data. It recognizes that data preservation and stewardship should be emphasized and discussed at meetings. It says AMS should promote conventions and standards for metadata to increase interoperability and usage, and that the Society should foster ways of deciding what data should be kept to improve preservation practices in the future.

AMS is not alone in this shift. There are others in the chain of research, publication, and archiving trying to do for data what Spock did for logic. Our Society is one of the original members of a year-old team of publishers, data facilities, and consortia called the Coalition on Publishing Data in the Earth and Space Sciences. COPDESS is working to ensure that data are preserved through proper, secure funding, and that careful decisions are made about what should be saved.

Most importantly, this international movement toward protecting and providing data is meant to preserve the scientific process. Science needs published studies to lead to more studies that can confirm or reject findings. According to the AMS Statement,

AMS should strongly encourage an environment in which scholarly papers published in scientific journals contain sufficient detail and references to data and methodology to permit others to test each paper’s scientific conclusions.

All that depends on data being available in the review process as well as in perpetuity, with published results closely aligned with open archives.

Logic and Data: the duality of the scientific spirit. It is easy to celebrate one without the other, but it would not be proper. Spock would understand.


A recent article in the New Yorker tried in vain to dissect and understand the term “wintry mix,” only to grimly report it’s a weather phenomenon vile and disgusting and that forecasters state it to cover their backsides when a variety of winter precipitation is to descend upon man.

Far from vile and disgusting, a wintry mix is just that: a mixture of winter precipitation—snow, sleet, freezing rain—falling from the sky. No more, no less. Its mention will return to forecasts this weekend as a moisture-laden storm in the nation’s midsection plows into Arctic air and treks across the inland South and into the East next week. Rest assured: research and new technology are ready and are allowing forecasters to view wintry mix in amazing detail, better than ever before, improving predictions of the phenomena by leaps and bounds.

Recently published research on dual polarization (dual pol) weather radar in use, in a handful of AMS journals, is shining a spotlight on its capability to determine different types of precipitation falling at the same time, including the once-dreaded wintry mix. Instead of shying away from such forecasts, meteorologists using the nation’s network of Doppler radars, upgraded in recent years to include polarimetric technology, are beginning to get really good at chronicling the wintry mix in their forecasts.

While the New Yorker implied meteorologists disdain for the term, wintry mix actually is looking more beautiful than ever to scientists–so nice we put the words on the cover of the latest BAMS: “Snow Globe: Dual Pol Deciphers Wintry Mix.”

This cover article in BAMS, by Picca et al., looks at New England’s monster blizzard of 9 February 2013, which unloaded more than 3 feet of snow on much of central Connecticut and Long Island. Dual pol radar’s unique modes deciphered the wintry mix inside an intense snowband producing lightning and snowfall rates of 3-6 inches per hour.

DualPol_BAMS7 A composite of products from the dual pol radar on Long Island, New York (KOKX) shows reflectivity (ZH; top), differential reflectivity (ZDR; middle), and correlation coefficient (CC; bottom) of a heavy band of now and ice in the Northeast blizzard of 9 February 2013 (from Picca et al., BAMS). (Top) Reports of precipitation types around the time of the radar products provide ground-truth to the radar signatures. The speckled areas of reduced CC in southern Connecticut and around KOKX are a result of ground clutter. The black dot indicates the location of KOKX, and the star represents the location of the Stony Brook University surface observations. The dashed and dotted outlines indicate the two areas 1 and 2 of mixed phase precipitation. The underlined “LS” is the location of a “large sleet” report.


A similar article in Weather and Forecasting, by Griffin et al., documents for the first time polarimetric radar signatures of the same intense convective band of snow. The transition zone from freezing to non-freezing air (0°C isotherm) was exceptionally distinct in the radar signatures.

PPI displays of the polarimetric variables at (a)–(c) 2216 UTC 8 Feb and (d)–(f) 0236 UTC 9 Feb 2013 at 0.58 elevation. The 08C RAP model TW at the surface is overlaid (boldface, dashed). At 2216 UTC, pure dry snow was located within colder temperatures north of the 08C isotherm, while wet snow and mixed-phase hydrometeors occurred within warmer temperatures south of the 08C isotherm in (a)–(c). The solid black line indicates the location of the 1448 azimuth RHI. At 0236 UTC, dry snow was predominant, while wet snow and ice pellets were also observed within the max ZH region, within negative surface temperatures, north of the 08C isotherm in (d)–(f). Displays of the polarimetric (i.e., dual pol) variables at (a)–(c) 2216 UTC 8 Feb and (d)–(f) 0236 UTC 9 Feb 2013 — during the Northeast blizzard (from Griffin et al., WAF). At 2216 UTC, pure dry snow was falling within colder temperatures north of the model-indicated 0°C isotherm (bold black dashed line), while wet snow and mixed-phase hydrometeors occurred within warmer temperatures south of the 0°C isotherm in (a)–(c).  At 0236 UTC, dry snow was predominant, while wet snow and ice pellets were also observed within the max ZH region, within below-freezing surface temperatures north of the 0°C isotherm in (d)–(f).


In the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology (JAMC), the article by Kumjian et al. discusses the use of intensive radar measurements to study the finescale structure of more than a dozen Colorado Front Range snowstorms. And in Monthly Weather Review, Geerts et al. explain in their article how a specifically synthesized dual Doppler radar technique in an airborne platform was able to directly measure hydrometeor vertical motion, improving the accuracy of the radar.

CSU-CHILL RHI along the 181.998 azimuth at 0852 UTC 9 Apr 2013 for (a) ZH and(b) ZDR. Arrows show the locations of generating cells. Vertical slices through a 9 April 2013 Colorado snowstorm from Colorado State University’s CHILL dual-pol radar show (a) reflectivity (ZH) as well as (b) differential reflectivity (ZDR), which indicates particle shape and size (from Kumjian, JAMC). Arrows show the locations of generating cells.


Conceptual model of a vertical slice through a generating cell with a shroud echo with example particle types present. The shroud of large ZDR and low ZH values (yellow color) indicates the presence of pristine anisotropic crystals with platelike or dendritic habits. The core of the generating cell (bluish color) is characterized by more snow aggragates or rimed crystals, the larger of which are descending (blue dashed lines) The core is also where the strongest updraft speeds (and thus supersaturations with respect to ice) are located, indicated the black vertical arrow). In Kumjian’s JAMC article, a conceptual model of a vertical slice through a generating snow cell reveals example particle types. The yellow color indicates the presence of pristine anisotropic snow crystals with platelike or dendritic habits. The core of the generating cell (bluish color) is characterized more by snow aggragates or rimed crystals, the larger of which are descending (blue dashed lines) The core is also where the strongest updraft speeds (black arrow) are located.



By Shawn Miller, Chair, AMS Board on Enterprise Economic Development

Fellow stakeholders in the weather, water, and climate enterprise, as chair of the AMS Board on Enterprise Economic Development (BEED), I would like to invite you to participate in the 2015 AMS Washington Forum, April 21-23 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Building, 1200 New York Avenue NW in Washington, D.C.

Organized by the AMS BEED, the purpose of the annual AMS Washington Forum is to provide an opportunity for members of the weather, water, and climate community to meet with senior federal agency officials, congressional staff, and other community members to hear about the status of current programs, learn about new initiatives, discuss issues of interest to our community, identify business opportunities, and speak out about data and other needs.

The 2015 AMS Washington Forum will focus on end users of weather, water, and climate data, returning to the theme of past years’ User Forum events conducted by the AMS. As the enterprise evolves and adapts to changes in budgets and cost-sharing paradigms, heightened attention to the needs of its end users is key to success for all stakeholders. Particular attention must be given to key areas of industry, such as health and the various modes of transportation. The 2015 forum will promote dialogue between the enterprise and its end users toward that end. Several special topics are planned for interactive panel discussions, including an overarching theme session; hospital preparedness in the wake of extreme weather and climate events; weather data needs relating to rail, trucking, and marine transportation; and water resources and related user needs. The forum will also feature speakers on the topics of national/international water rights issues, the intersection between legal and science issues, and commercial weather satellites. Complementary to the session topics on specific user needs, senior leaders from agencies including NOAA, NASA, and other enterprise stakeholders will look ahead and provide updates on current programs and provide insights on new science initiatives and directions. We will also invite leaders from the Office of Management & Budget and the Office of Science & Technology Policy, and from Congress, who will discuss the latest weather-, water- and climate-related programs and legislative initiatives to better serve the American people.

Seating is limited for this exciting event, so preregistration is strongly recommended. Please watch the AMS_PSL list for announcements, or send an e-mail to Gary Rasmussen ( to be added to the announcement list. Thank you for your time and attention, and I hope to see you in Washington this April!


At the height of his fame, Archie Williams achieved greater public renown than pretty much any other meteorologist in history. He played a part in a revolution with a lasting impact on society seventy years later. He was a pioneer in another revolution that has yet to realize its potential.

Surprisingly, few meteorologists have heard his inspiring and unlikely story. Now is the time to tell it, especially because this is Black History Month. Archie Williams was one of the first African American meteorologists. His story must be known—a reminder of the perseverance and talent of pioneers as well as the cost of having so few African Americans in our science community. What follows is admittedly unusually long for a post in this blog. But the story is unusually compelling too: many readers will be interested going a step further and reading Williams’s full story in his own words. We encourage you to seek the oral histories from the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley, and the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles.

Archie Franklin Williams was born in Oakland, California, in 1915.  His paternal grandfather was a Spanish-American War veteran and his grandmother a storied leader of the black community. His father, a grocer, died when Williams was young; his mother worked as a cook for a family in San Francisco. They lived in a mostly white neighborhood within sight of the university campus in Berkeley. Nonetheless their means were quite modest, as was common in the Depression. Williams recalled,

Everybody was broke. You ate a lot of beans and stuff like that. I never missed a meal and I never went to school with holes in my shoes.

Racial discrimination reared its ugliness, as well—a swimming hole at a nearby amusement park didn’t allow blacks, for example, nor did some local restaurants and theaters. Boy Scouts were off limits as well, even though many of Williams’s white friends were in the local troops. These conditions rankled him but were small irritants compared to the limits he would encounter later.

Williams had typical pursuits, camping and fishing, building a wooden boat based on plans in Popular Science magazine, playing sandlot baseball. Plus he had won a local contest for his model airplane making—airplanes were a passion. And he liked to run races, eventually joining the track team in high school. Despite success in athletics—the quarter mile was his distance—Williams says he “fooled around a lot” in school, with poor grades to show for his attitude. After high school, he got a job as a golf caddy, but a friend suggested they try going to a junior college. The two young men decided studying might be cheap enough and better than menial work.

A Second Chance

This is where the Archie Williams story takes a turn toward the remarkable. Here was a typical kid, not serious about anything, not marked for greatness. Williams was the kind of indifferent student probably none of us would have expected to wind up in science. How many students give up because they drift through high school? Because they are the sons of grocers and cooks? Because they don’t look like the people who are in various professions?

Williams, however, made the most of his second chance at school. He decided he wanted to improve his lot and be an engineer. He also found a talent for school. He took trigonometry for the first time. Analytical geometry. Physics. Surveying. Subjects came easily. He got A’s. Within a year, Williams had taken enough courses to qualify for the University of California at Berkeley. It was 1935.williams1

At this point, Williams was also doing well in the small-stakes world of junior college track. But—here again this must seem amazing to us today—he had no thought, no chance, really, of sports as a ticket to college, let alone to notoriety.  “I was a nobody. Nobody recruited me…and I didn’t care because I was going to play in the physics lab.”

Berkeley’s track coach, Brutus Hamilton, was of the same mindset—he was an anachronism even then. He was a “father figure” who knew his athlete’s grades, not just their lap splits, by heart.

Hamilton was an exception in another way: There were maybe a few dozen black students at Berkeley at the time, and Hamilton must have known he’d lucked into a special one when Williams asked to be on the track and field team. At a time when many college coaches wouldn’t allow black athletes, Hamilton was open to anyone.

Athletic Glory

While Williams was succeeding in the engineering labs, he was progressing just as rapidly in the stadiums. Sports were an equal channel for his determination and skill. By the spring of 1936 the unknown quarter-miler had dropped three seconds off his best time. He was doing well enough to win the NCAA championships in Chicago. Williams was breaking records. That summer he qualified as one of nine African Americans to represent the United States in the Olympic Games—in Hitler’s Berlin.

The prejudices from the American sports world were, if anything, harsher than those shown to the team when they arrived in Germany. The government aside, the locals were curious:

 I think they wanted to see if the black would come off if they rubbed our skin. Jesse Owens might have been snubbed by Hitler, but he was a hero in the eyes of the Germans. They followed him around the streets like he was the Pied Piper.

Hitler had suspended many of his regime’s most odious rules during the games. The team, by contrast, offered only segregated room assignments for the African Americans and other non-white athletes.

Williams later told the Oakland Tribune,

As I recall, when I came back home . . . people asked me, ‘How did those dirty Nazis treat you?’ To which I always replied, ‘Well, over there at least we didn’t have to ride in the back of the bus.’ “

There was, however, no denying Williams, the world record holder, his position at the front of the 400-meter race. Despite his relative inexperience in top-flight competition, he won the gold medal. Listening to Williams describe the feat, however, you can sense he retained his humility:

Somebody once asked me, “How does it feel to be the greatest in the world?” I said, “What the hell are you talking about? How do you know I’m the greatest in the world? There may be some guy down there in Kenya being chased by a lion that broke my record before breakfast.” I said, “I just beat the ones that showed up that day.”

Teammate Jesse Owens outran all the lions: he won four golds. In all, the African American track stars won 13 medals. They toured Europe as goodwill ambassadors and returned home heroes. Ultimately Jackie Robinson, younger brother of one of Williams’s fellow Olympians, broke the color barrier in baseball and triggered a flood of African Americans into the sports limelight. But Archie Williams, Jesse Owens, and the Olympians of 1936 not only had embarrassed racial supremacists in Germany but also sent that initial–and very clear message–to fellow Americans. The revolution of opportunities in athletics began with these young men.

Sports would become a popular, powerful path to success for determined African Americans. There they were eventually welcomed to show their talents and compete unfettered. Thanks to the zealous Nazi propaganda to the contrary, Williams and his fellow African Americans had exercised an unprecedented power in politics and public opinion. They had achieved at an international scale.

But at home discrimination still kept them out of certain track meets, professional sports, and a host of careers at home. One of those forbidden careers in the late 1930s, as Williams discovered when back at Berkeley, was engineering. By this time his track career was suddenly over, due to hamstring injuries. What might be a crisis for a young, star athlete of today was not for the focused and capable Williams—he was at school to be an engineer. But the campus engineering societies were not open to African-American students.

When I went and signed up for engineering, my counselor said, “You’re crazy. Why don’t you be a preacher or a real estate man or something like that? You’re not going to get any job as a engineer.” I said, “Well, I want to study it, so just sign me up.” Then at the end they arranged interviews with General Motors, Lockheed, and other firms. And he did it, well, almost on purpose, just to show: “See what I told you.” They said, “Well, you have a nice record. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” I knew it wasn’t going to be, but I did it anyway.

On to Meteorology

No one would hire Williams to be an engineer, but ironically the Nazis intervened in his life again. Their relentless aggression would open yet another channel of achievement for African Americans–in science and aviation. Williams had participated in the campus ROTC training even though—ironically—he was not eligible for an officer’s commission even though he wanted to serve in active duty. Furthermore, in 1939, the year he graduated with his engineering degree, Williams was working at Oakland Airport doing maintenance in exchange for opportunities to take flying instruction through the Civilian Pilot Training Program. Eventually he was rated as an instructor—and took students unofficially because African-Americans weren’t allowed to teach flying. His background would prove perfect for the occasion.

In 1941, Williams—who was one of the very few black flight instructors in the country—applied to train the first black military pilots at Tuskegee Army Flying School in Alabama. The new corps of African-American pilots would go on to distinguish themselves in battle as the Fighting 99th Squadron, over North Africa and later Italy and the rest of Europe. Williams’s days as a flight instructor were numbered, however, in part because of his scientific training.120222-F-AW123-003

Williams, still wanting to serve as a pilot, applied for a commission and ended up getting sent to UCLA instead, to the meteorology program. At the time the war broke out, there were only three university-level meteorology programs in the country. The Army Air Corps had only 62 weather forecasters by July 1940; the entire nation had fewer than 400. The war would create a demand for thousands of forecasters and observers—a demand that could only be met by swift, efficient training, and massive enrollment. By 1942 there were more the 1,700 cadets enrolled in the national program and 6,000 completed the training.

Retaining these trained meteorologists in the field was a major thrust of the expansion of the AMS after the war. Some of the Tuskegee weather officers pioneered in meteorology after the war: the first African American weather cadet, Wallace Reed, became the first African American meteorologist in the Weather Bureau. John Willis went into weather technology development at Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory. And Charles Anderson went on to be the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in the field and taught for many years as a professor at the University of Wisconsin and North Carolina State University.

At age 27 Williams was considered too old to be a fighter pilot and qualify as an officer that way; so he was ranked a cadet in the weather school. After the course at UCLA, however, he was finally sent back to Tuskegee to serve as a lieutenant—a weather officer—forecasting and mapping the weather, and eventually again teaching introductory flying skills.

We would get up in the morning. Since you had training and weather, you would jump in that plane and check the weather. I used to go up and fly around and see how the weather was, call back and say, “It’s okay to fly.” [laughter] A couple of times we got up there and had to fly away to Birmingham; the weather was so bad we had to spend the night in Birmingham. But it was fun. It was great because I was doing what I liked to do.

Williams and his Tuskegee colleagues were paid considerably less than their white counterparts at other bases. Nonetheless, after the war, Williams was a rare qualified pilot with meteorology credentials and stayed with the air force (as did several others of the 14 total African Americans who graduated in the military weather officer training program). With Truman’s order to desegregate the air force came new opportunities. By 1950 Williams had added a degree in aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology. He flew missions over Korea as well as forecasted for the war from Japan. He made a career as meteorologist for a number of air bases, in New York, Alaska, and California, finally retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1965.

A Teacher’s Lesson

While athletics was progressively more and more attractive to motivated young African Americans, science and engineering, indeed weather forecasting, were slow to attract even highly trained people like Williams. Remaining true to his passion for education, Williams decided he might enjoy teaching as a post-military career. So he took teaching courses at the University of California-Riverside while finishing with the air force and then moved on to teach math and computer science for an affluent, largely white high school near San Francisco. From this position he also did some coaching and reached out with programs for underserved students in nearby schools.

A man who pulled himself up with a rare college degree, who was determined to study sciences, who helped open the floodgates for thousands of talented African American athletes in succeeding generations, who defied Nazi propaganda with Olympic gold, and who defied regulations so he could teach others to fly—such a man left dreams of engineering and experience in meteorology behind despite 22 years in the field.

Nonetheless, he had achieved lasting fame. And Archie Williams had changed the world…of sports, in particular. He opened doors for African American athletes. We all know that revolution turned out spectacularly.

The other revolution that Archie Williams and his fellow Tuskegee weathermen started–in science–is not yet a full triumph. As AMS Past President Marshall Shepherd puts it in his recent blog, preparing for a Black History Month episode of his talk show, Weather Geeks, this coming Sunday:

I actually know all of the current blacks with doctorates in meteorology. If I count them, I may actually have a finger or toe left.

Only two percent of AMS members are African Americans. In the race that Archie Williams wanted to win most of all—education and science—we have not yet reached the finish line.





In his Dot.Earth blog post today about the impending blizzard in the U.S. Northeast, journalist Andy Revkin addressed pointed questions about storms and numerical modeling to eight “extreme weather watchers” (nearly all of them doubling as media figures these days). Some of them specialize in snow. Some in numerical forecasting. More to the point, all eight are men.

In light of the gender imbalance of his ad hoc expert panel, Revkin asked for reader assistance:

I know lots of highly-respected female climate scientists, among them Jennifer Francis, Judith Curry and Florence Fetterer. But most high-profile, storm-focused meteorologists seem to be men. Please weigh in with names and links to women in this arena to broaden the field of view!

The gender imbalances in atmospheric and related sciences—whether in operational, broadcast, research, or other aspects of the field—are real. A good baseline for more discussion about the situation is a recent article (soon in print, but already open-access online) accepted for the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.  Authors David MacPhee and Silvia Sara Canetto note that the atmospheric sciences have a particularly poor recorded of attracting and retaining women in academia. The survey of 34 graduate-degree granting institutions showed that women hold just over 17% of the tenure and non-tenure track positions, and only about 11% of the full professorships. Worse yet, the percentage of women in academic positions is not rising and not likely to rise in the near future.

The rate of women who were the lead authors of poster presentations at the recent AMS Student Conference in Phoenix was much higher—close to 40%. But the BAMS article and AMS membership surveys show that these proportions fall as students move on with their careers.

This failure to retain women in the field is being addressed in various ways, including targeted mentoring programs as described in BAMS not long ago as well as a more recent National Science Foundation funded initiative based at Colorado State University.

Not surprisingly, Revkin received some great suggestions for women experts from readers. The actual imbalance in the community, however, remains to be solved.

[Note: Updated 9:56 p.m.]

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At the Annual Meeting in Phoenix, AMS premiered a new series of TED-styled conversations called “23|5 Talks,” which brought together some of the leading voices in the weather, water, and climate community.
The first 23|5 Talk was given by Sheldon Drobot, who works at UCAR on providing up-to-the-minute weather information for drivers. On Monday, Sheldon spoke about the dangers of driving in bad conditions and solutions to these problems.

See the AMS’s YouTube page for other 23|5 Talks with Marshall Shepherd, Kristen Averyt, and David Kenny. Thanks for joining us in Phoenix and drive safely!


Atmospheric Science Librarians International (ASLI) today celebrated their 10th year of honoring the best books in the fields of meteorology, climatology, and the atmospheric sciences at the ASLI Choice Book Award Ceremony at the Annual Meeting. Each year, ASLI chooses the best books based on nine criteria:  uniqueness, comprehensiveness, usefulness, quality, authoritativeness, organization, illustrations/diagrams, competition, and references.  oxygen_cvr2

The winner of the main award for 2014 was Oxygen: A Four Billion Year History, by Donald E. Canfield, published by Princeton University Press, which ASLI praised for being “a well-documented, accessible, and interesting history of this vital substance.”  There were also awards given in two other categories. The winner of the History award was The History of Global Climate Governance, by Joyeeta Gupta, published by Cambridge University Press, for “bringing together a history and summary that readers are likely to reference often.” history_global_climate  The top award in the Popular category went to Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future, by Adam Sobel, published by HarperWave, which was recognized by ASLI for “providing its readers with a detailed, clear understanding of the meteorological basis for Hurricane Sandy and the importance of our response to it.”

In the Science category, Honorable Mention awards were given to Dendroclimatic Studies: Tree Growth and Climate Change in Northern Forests, by Rosanne D’Arrigo, Nicole Davi, Gordon Jacoby, Rob Wilson, and Greg Wiles, and published by the American Geophysical Union, for “a clear summary of research from a renowned institution on this important topic”; and Air Quality Management: Canadian Perspectives on a Global Issue, edited by Eric Taylor and Ann McMillan, published by Springer Netherlands, for “bringing together expert views on many aspects of this topic from a Canadian perspective.” storm_surge Honorable Mention in the History category was given to Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World, by Gillen D’Arcy Wood, published by Princeton University Press, which ASLI described as “a book that makes this extreme event newly accessible through connecting literature, social history, and science.” And Honorable Mention in the Popular category was awarded to a title from AMS Books: Partly to Mostly Funny: The Ultimate Weather Joke Book, edited by Jon Malay with jokes from Norm Dvoskin, was praised by ASLI for being “a handy compilation of lighthearted humor about the weather and its place in our lives.”

After you’re finished reading the best of 2014, be sure to let ASLI know what you liked in 2015 by sending them nominations for next year’s awards; you can get more information here.


For the 2015 AMS Annual Meeting, we’ve brought back The Buzz @ AMS, our “on the street” interviews with attendees. If you haven’t been to an AMS Annual Meeting before, these videos will help give you a perspective of what’s happening in the convention center. And if you’re here with us in Phoenix, maybe you’ll be the next one we talk to.

We hope you’ll check out our YouTube channel for the latest buzz from the meeting.