1.1 A Passion for Clouds: Joanne Simpson and the Tropical Atmosphere

Tuesday, 24 January 2017: 10:30 AM
Conference Center: Yakima 2 (Washington State Convention Center )
James Rodger Fleming, Colby College, Waterville, ME

Handout (159.2 kB)

“The cumulus cloud is the queen of beauty in the realm of the atmosphere”  —Herbert Riehl

 This presentation, based on the life and work of Joanne (Gerould) Simpson (1923-2010), charts the history of women in meteorology and the history of tropical meteorology in the context of her long and productive career as pioneer scientist, project leader, and mentor.

In 1943 women had no status in meteorology, tropical weather was largely aer incognita, and Joanne Gerould, a new graduate student at the University of Chicago, had just set her sights on understanding the behavior of clouds. Establishing her career in an era of overwhelming marginalization of women in science was no easy matter, and Joanne (who published under three married names and raised three children) had to fight every step of the way. Under the mentorship of Herbert Riehl, she received a Ph.D. from Chicago in 1949. Later, while working at Woods Hole, she collaborated with Riehl on their revolutionary and controversial "hot tower" hypothesis that cumulonimbus clouds were the driving force in the tropical atmosphere, providing energy to power the Hadley circulation, the trade winds, and by implication, the global circulation.

The mechanism of hot towers alludes to the incessant battle between buoyancy and entrainment in tropical convection, valorizing those clouds that successfully break through the trade wind inversion to soar to the top of the troposphere. The metaphor of hot towers points to the incessant battles Joanne waged between her sky-high aspirations and the dark psychological and institutional forces dragging her down. Yet she prevailed, reaching the pinnacle of personal and professional accomplishment, especially in her years at NASA, as she conditioned the atmosphere for further breakthroughs for women in science.

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