Pursuing hurricanes and other storms

Christopher Davis, Mesoscale and Microscale Meteorology


In June 2010 Chris Davis added director of NCAR's Advanced Study Program to his activities list.

Photo Christopher DavisChris Davis (Photos by Carlye Calvin, UCAR.)






For Chris Davis, one of the best things about a career in science is the constant change. "What I'm doing now is nothing like what I did ten years ago," he says, "and nothing like what I'll do ten years from now."

Perhaps it's no surprise that Chris studies weather systems that constantly change. A meteorologist by training, he researches the life cycles of thunderstorms and hurricanes by synthesizing field observations and computer models.

"We need field observations because without them we can't begin; but they're incomplete, so we use computer models to fill in the gaps," he explains. "You need them both for a total picture."

Chris remembers being interested in weather as a child. Growing up in Massachusetts, he was especially fascinated by New England's winter storms. During high school, he hung out at the local weather station to watch balloon launches. He got his first piece of career counseling from the head of the station, who advised him to major in math, engineering, or physics if he wanted to pursue research meteorology.

"His advice really sticks in my mind," Chris says. "With a major in those subjects I could always go in different directions."

After completing an undergraduate degree in physics at the University of Massachusetts, Chris earned his Ph.D. in meteorology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Soon after, he joined NCAR's Mesoscale and Microscale Meteorology group as a postdoctoral fellow.

Fifteen years later, he is now engrossed in the life cycles of storms and the regularity of their patterns. Some of the questions he looks at are why a cluster of thunderstorms behaves differently than individual members, and why thunderstorms passing through the Midwest typically die in the morning when the Sun rises. "Ultimately, what we're trying to do is improve forecasts," he says.


Photo of BAMEXResearchers hold a windy planning session before the start of a storm chase during BAMEX. Chris Davis co-led the BAMEX field experiment, which sent aircraft and ground vehicles hundreds of miles across the U.S. Midwest in the spring and summer of 2003 in pursuit of the world's largest thunderstorm complexes.

One of Chris's most significant efforts to date at understanding thunderstorms was during the summer of 2003, when he was a lead scientist on BAMEX (the Bow Echo and MCV Experiment), an ambitious field project to study giant clusters of thunderstorms called mesoscale convective systems, or MCVs. During the project, Chris and colleagues used research aircraft and ground-based storm chasers to track these monster storms that batter the eastern two-thirds of the country. They expect the findings to help improve forecasts of tornadoes, damaging winds, and heavy rain.

On the hurricane front, Chris takes a close look at how these storms form. "I think of hurricane formation as one of the fundamental problems left in meteorology," he says. He's especially interested in smaller hurricanes that form relatively close to land, and has his sights set on a future research project to study such storms. "Every year, a few of these sneak up on forecasters," he notes, citing Hurricane Gordon in 2004 as an example.

Chris observes that trying to understand the atmosphere is an enormous intellectual challenge: "In its full complexity, it's pretty much incomprehensible, so you have to reduce it to smaller pieces."

It's precisely this variety in atmospheric science that appeals to him. "I'm interested in the subject matter to begin with, and there are so many different aspects that there is always something new," he says.

With a joint appointment in NCAR's Research Applications Laboratory, Chris plays a role in making sure that knowledge gained from basic research becomes useful to society. In recent years he's also gotten more interested in evaluating the quality of forecasts to pinpoint where they go wrong. "As a scientist, you have so many opportunities to make useful contributions to the public," he says.

Chris notes that an important quality for scientists—and nonscientists—is curiosity. "It makes for a good scientist and serves a lot of purpose in other areas," he explains. "Most of us aren't going to actually be scientists, but we need a scientifically literate society in which people can read something in the paper and form intelligent opinions."

by Nicole Gordon
April 2005