Scientist of the Decade Edward N Lorenz

Often referred to as the father of chaos theory, the meteorologist Edward N. Lorenz was born and raised in West Hartford, Connecticut. Fascinated by numbers at a young age, Lorenz experienced his first spark of scientific interest during an encounter with an astronomical atlas when he was seven years old. When a total eclipse of the Sun occurred the next summer, he was hooked. As are most people interested in astronomy, Lorenz was interested in the weather, since the condition of the night sky determined what could be seen during a night of telescopic observations. He also enjoyed stamp collecting and playing chess—a game he had learned from his mother.

Entering Dartmouth College in 1934, Lorenz pursued a bachelor's degree in mathematics and then entered Harvard University as a doctoral student in mathematics in 1938. World War II brought change: Offered a choice between being drafted into the army or signing up for a special course being offered at MIT to train weather forecasters for the military, Lorenz decided to seek weather training. An outstanding student, he remained at MIT as an instructor after he completed the course and was later assigned to Saipan and Okinawa as an Army Air Corps forecaster.

With his military service ending, Lorenz had to decide whether to return to graduate school in mathematics or turn his attention to meteorology. Deciding that meteorology was a better option, he completed his doctorate in meteorology at MIT in 1948 with research related to numerical weather prediction. Remaining at MIT, Lorenz began working as a research scientist on a project dealing with the general circulation of the atmosphere. He would have been happy to remain in his research position at MIT, but after a visit to UCLA in 1953, Jacob Bjerknes encouraged him to spend the next year in Los Angeles as a visiting professor. As that year at UCLA ended, MIT invited Lorenz to become a faculty member. Clearly it would be a better career decision to accept a faculty position than to remain a research pattern of barometric pressures across the Pacific the Southern Oscillation. He called the pattern with high pressure in the east coupled with low pressure in the west a "high-index" state; the reverse was the "low-index" state. During the high-index period, the pressure difference drove the normally easterly trade wind flow from the Galapagos Islands off South America to just east of Indonesia. Those strong easterly winds weakened during the low-index period. West of the international dateline, the easterlies would sometimes completely disappear.

As the easterlies slackened, Walker noted that Australia, Indonesia, India, and some parts of Africa tended to be affected by drought. And considering regions outside the immediate vicinity of his study, he noted that western Canada seemed to experience a much milder winter during the low-index periods. Roundly criticized by other meteorologists at the time—how could the weather in Canada be in any way connected to what was going on in the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean?—Walker insisted that there was a connection, even if he could not explain it.

scientist, so Lorenz agreed and joined the faculty in 1955. He never left MIT.

Although his immediate task was to take over the statistical forecasting project, he remained attached to the general circulation research project, which was heavily involved with numerical weather prediction. At the time, many people thought that the two fields had nothing in common. It was because Lorenz was working in both simultaneously that he was able to convince others that statistical methods and numerical weather forecasting were complementary. After finally obtaining a small computer for his office, he turned increasingly to computer modeling.

Lorenz's interest in computer modeling combined with statistical methods eventually led to what became known as chaos theory. Proponents of statistical forecasting argued that their methods would produce a forecast at least as good as any other method, including numerical forecasting, would. Lorenz was doubtful. He thought he could strengthen the statistical argument by showing that the atmosphere was periodic—that is, it would regularly return to a similar pattern. If not, then the statistical meth ods would not be as promising as some maintained. Running his model, he discovered that the atmosphere was not periodic. Starting one of these models from the middle instead of the beginning, Lorenz discovered that even small changes in initial conditions would lead to large differences in the final atmospheric outcome. The atmosphere was chaotic. The atmospheric system appeared to be random, but it was not. Lorenz's discovery was not only a major breakthrough in meteorology—various other scientific and management disciplines adopted it for their own use.

Lorenz retired as a full-time faculty member in 1981. He continues to work on problems related to chaos theory and the predictability of the atmosphere. Lorenz has been honored with many awards, including the 1983 Crafoord Prize, the 1991 Kyoto Prize, the 1992 Roger Revelle Medal from the American Geophysical Union, the 1995 Louis J. Battan Author's Award from the American Meteorological Society, and the 2000 International Meteorological Organization Prize, the top international prize in meteorology and related geophysical sciences.

With time, more clues appeared. During World War II, data started arriving from Pacific islands that had never had a rain gauge before the start of military action. They showed that the islands received torrential rainfall some years, and in other years they got very little, if any, rain. That explained why they had so little vegetation—during the high-index years there was not enough moisture to support plant life. It was only during the low-index years of the weakened easterlies that moisture was plentiful.

During the 1960s, Jacob Bjerknes turned his attention toward climatic change and decided to take another look at El Niño. While analyzing the presence of the unusually warm sea surface temperatures off South America, he noticed that it occurred at the same time as the slackened easterlies and the heavy tropical rainfall. El Niño was another manifestation of the low-index state of the Southern Oscillation. (The term La Niña [the girl child] was used to describe the high-index state.) This tele-connection showed that climate changes in one part of the world definitely affected the climate thousands of miles away.

Now that they recognize the meteorological signs pointing to an ENSO—El Niño-Southern Oscillation—event, scientists have incorporated them into numerical models to help predict the onset and severity of El Niño. These models are not a "sure thing" because scientists are still trying to determine the ENSO triggers. Using past data, they have tried to "predict" previous El Niños so they can modify their models to predict future ones better. Although it might seem that a change in water temperature or wind velocity might not be worth worrying about, a severe El Niño year can be highly disruptive to the world's economy. In addition to the problems caused in the Tropics, El Niño may change rainfall patterns across the United States, leaving some areas (Texas to Florida) with much greater rainfall rates and flooding, while others experience significantly less rainfall and endure crop losses. Temperatures may be milder in western Canada and the northern parts of the United States (not usually viewed as a bad thing by residents).

Climate scientists are continuing their exploration of the connections among global temperature, local climate changes, and possible changes in ENSO frequency. As Jacob Bjerknes's work makes clear, it is no longer wise to consider "local" weather pattern changes to be truly local.

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