Scientist of the Decade Jule Gregory Charney

The mathematician-turned-meteorologist Jule Charney was born in San Francisco, California, to Stella and Ely Charney—both Russian émigrés. Raised in Los Angeles, he was attracted to mathematics by the time he was in high school and had familiarized himself with the basics of differential and integral calculus before enrolling in the University of California, Los Angeles. Graduating from UCLA in 1938 with an A.B. (with honors) in both mathematics and physics, he turned his sights on graduate school. Remaining at UCLA, within two years he had a master's degree in mathematics, and it appeared that he would earn the first mathematics Ph.D. awarded at the university. When World War II intervened, Charney's life took a different path.

While attending a seminar discussing fluid turbulence, Charney heard a talk by the Norwegian meteorologist Jorgen Holmboe (1902-79) from UCLA's physics department. A new meteorology program under Jacob Bjerknes's leadership was just getting established and Holmboe invited Charney to join him as an assistant in spring 1941 as the new military meteorology training program was taking shape. After discussing with his mentors the relative merits of turning his attentions to aeronautical engineering or to meteorology in support of the war effort, Charney decided to apply his considerable mathematical abilities and theoretical interests to the atmosphere.

While learning about the atmosphere, Charney was also teaching about the atmosphere, staying just slightly ahead of his students. The synoptic meteorology of Bjerknes and Holmboe, with its emphasis on hand-drawn weather maps to determine current and future atmospheric conditions, did not appeal to the mathematical Charney. Once exposed to Carl-Gustav Rossby's theoretical writings, Charney could envision making a real contribution to the discipline. His doctoral dissertation on the behavior of unstable waves in westerly flow, including how wind, temperature, and pressure were distributed within them, was published shortly after its completion and was widely accepted as an explanation for this phenomenon, although the mathematics he used was well beyond the understanding of most meteorologists at the time. Not only did Charney make a significant contribution to the field with his first major meteorological project, he did so without the assistance of fluid dynamics experts.

After receiving a Ph.D. in 1946, Charney was awarded a National Research Council fellowship, and he decided to use it to study with the meteorologist Halvor Solberg in Oslo, Norway. While he was en route to Norway, Charney fortuitously stopped off to visit Rossby at the University of Chicago. With an extremely active research program in progress, Rossby used his considerable charm and powers of persuasion to convince Charney to remain in Chicago. Postponing his fellowship for almost a year, Charney was with Rossby when discussions concerning the new Meteorology Project and the possibilities for numerical weather prediction first began in the summer of 1946. Using mathematics and computers to describe the atmosphere appealed greatly to Charney, and when he finally left for Norway in 1947, he was considering how to adapt the physical equations of motion, in addition to the thermodynamic and hydrodynamic equations, into an atmospheric model solvable by numerical possibility that orbital changes could have a significant influence. Even while acknowledging that CO2 levels had risen as a result of industrialization, most meteorologists doubted that CO2 had sufficient absorptive properties to produce a notable temperature increase. It appeared that

Jule Gregory Charney
The numerical weather prediction pioneer Jule Gregory Charney, from the cover of Eos 57 (August 1976) (© Nora Rosenbaum)

techniques. Within a year, he had found a way to "filter" out the "noise" from these equations: That is, he had found a way to separate out the large-scale atmospheric motion that influenced the weather from the smaller acoustic and gravity waves that had caused L. F. Richardson's numerical calculations during the First World War to give a wildly wrong forecast for the next day.

Offering his solution to John von Neumann in Princeton, Charney joined the Meteorology

Project in 1948, leading the effort to develop numerical weather prediction as both a theoretical and an applied research tool. The combined efforts of everyone on the modeling team led to operational computer forecasting in 1955, as described earlier, and Charney then turned his attention to the establishment of a center to examine the general atmospheric circulation. The Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, now part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in Princeton continues as a world leader in cutting-edge atmospheric research.

Charney, who had accepted a professorship at MIT in 1956, spent increasing amounts of time on geophysical fluid dynamics, addressing problems in the atmosphere and oceans. He was in demand as an adviser and consultant on scientific programs and in 1966 became the leader of the Global Atmospheric Research Program (GARP), a position he held until 1971. Charney's research interests also led him to examine issues related to desertification—a problem that worsened in the last half of the century.

In addition to his personal achievements— Charney was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and was awarded the most prestigious medals in meteorology—he had a tremendous influence on a generation of new meteorologists because of his outstanding characteristics as a mentor. His supervision of some of the brightest young meteorological minds during his 25 years at MIT led to many significant advances in atmospheric modeling and theoretical meteorology. Charney's death of cancer in 1981 at the age of 64 was a tremendous loss to both the meteorological and oceanographic communities as well as to the scientific community at large.

volcanic ash in the atmosphere was the most likely trigger for climate change. Of course, the spewing of large quantities of ash into the atmosphere would have been the trigger for cooling and an ice age—not for global warming.

Then, in his 1956 article "Effects of Carbon Dioxide Variations on Climate," the physicist Gilbert Plass (1920- ) argued that increasing amounts of CO2 entering the atmosphere could lead to huge problems if it continued. Plass wrote, "If at the end of the century, measurements show that the CO2 content of the atmosphere has risen appreciably and at the same time the temperature has continued to rise throughout the world, it will be firmly established that CO2 is an important factor in causing climate change." He also noted that by the time scientists had sufficient data to determine the outcome of the increasing CO2 it would be too late to reverse the process. Within two years, Charles Keeling would have the evidence that CO2 was increasing. By the end of the century it would be an established fact. Between the late 1950s and the end of the century, the debate would rage over climate change. Was climate cooling down or warming up?

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Responses

  • Stefan
    How much did jule charney make?
    8 years ago
  • MARY
    Why did jule charney study weather?
    5 years ago

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