NCAR marks the passing of a top meteorologist

David Atlas (1924-2015)

November 20, 2015 | David Atlas, an eminent radar meteorologist who invigorated NCAR’s program in the 1970s, died on Nov. 10 at the age of 91 in New Jersey.

In an email to her staff, Earth Observing Laboratory Director Vanda Grubišić called Atlas the “world’s foremost radar meteorologist” who transformed NCAR’s then-languishing Facilities Laboratory into a robust Atmospheric Technology Division, today’s EOL. “His reputation is legendary, nationally and internationally,” Grubišić wrote.

Atlas helped establish new radar, aircraft, and balloon facilities at NCAR. Research results by his team were influential in the subsequent development of NEXRAD (Next-Generation Radar), the network of high-resolution, U.S. Doppler weather radars.

David Atlas
David Atlas during his time at NCAR. (©UCAR)

Atlas, the first in his family to attend college, was part of a select U.S. Army Air Corps group trained in radar meteorology at Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology during World War II. He became known for his work in interpreting weather radar echoes and radar measurements of rainfall, wind, and turbulence. His many patents led to the development of airborne radar to improve aviation safety in cases of severe weather.

He came to NCAR in 1972 after establishing prominent weather radar programs at the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories and University of Chicago.

In a 1987 oral history taken by former NCAR director Robert Serrafin, Atlas said he had visited NCAR in the early 1960s shortly after it had started and saw a place that had “very little facilities and a lot of ambitious plans.” But a decade later, there were ample facilities, and “it looked like a natural place for me to come and to utilize those research tools.” He said his goal was to “bring in people who were creative, imaginative, and leaders in engineering and science and meteorology.”

While at NCAR, Atlas also served as the director of the National Hail Research Experiment (NHRE), a program to reduce hail through cloud seeding. In the oral history, he recounted how the program was “clearly under great pressure because the Russians were claiming tremendous successes in hail suppression there.”

In the interview, Serrafin praised Atlas for running NHRE as an “intellectually honest program” that contributed to the field of meteorology and weather modification in part by its willingness to acknowledge “negative results.” For example, Atlas’ team concluded that there wasn’t enough known about clouds to modify them, and that storms in various regions respond differently and, therefore, you can’t transfer concepts and physics from one area to another.

Atlas left NCAR in 1976 to run NASA’s Goddard Laboratory for Atmospheric Science, where he led a program that produced numerous satellite-based instruments for monitoring the atmosphere, oceans, and polar regions. Although he retired in 1984, he remained active in meteorology research. Atlas served as the president of the American Meteorological Society in 1975 and received numerous awards from AMS and others, including the American Institute of Aeronautics and the Royal Meteorological Society. He owned more than 20 patents.

Atlas, a Brooklyn native, earned a bachelor’s degree in meteorology from New York University and doctorate from MIT. He and his wife, Lucille, raised two children, Joan and Robert.

Jeff Smith, science writer and public information officer