Remembering Roy Jenne (1931-2016)

Memorial gathering planned Feb. 16 for NCAR data management founder

January 4, 2017 | Roy L. Jenne, the founding leader of NCAR's data support services and a researcher of global climatology, died November 18 at Foothills Hospital in Boulder. He was 85.

Shortly after arriving at NCAR in 1965, Jenne started the Data Support Section (DSS), which is now part of NCAR's Computational and Information Systems Laboratory (CISL). DSS has helped researchers at NCAR and in the atmospheric and Earth system science community ever since.

"With a small team, he recognized the importance of collecting, preserving, and providing access to scientific data," said Steven Worley, CISL's current DSS manager. "In addition to data, he also loved the science that relied upon it."

Under Jenne's direction, NCAR became one of the world's primary archives of observational and model data to support weather and climate research, including the efforts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and of global atmospheric reanalyses in the United States and abroad.

Former senior scientist Roy Jenne
Former NCAR senior scientist Roy Jenne. (©UCAR. This image is freely available for media & nonprofit use.)

Jenne became an NCAR senior scientist in 1979. In addition to data management, he remained involved in research, especially on the climatology of the global atmosphere. Jenne and colleague Harry van Loon co-authored a detailed study of the climatic conditions of the Southern Atmosphere in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In the 1990s, Jenne led the NCEP/NCAR Reanalysis Program, a joint project between NCAR and the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Prediction to standardize the datasets of global atmospheric observations dating back to 1948. These same data resources are being built upon and used to this day in multiple centers in the United States, Europe, and Japan.

"Roy was of course central to that iconic project," said NCAR Director Jim Hurrell. The project won a special American Meteorological Society award, and a 1996 reanalysis paper in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society became one of the most cited in all of geosciences for the next decade.

Jenne was born in Snoqualmie Falls, Washington, in 1931. He grew up in Washington State and received a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Washington State University in 1953. On entering the U.S. Air Force, he studied meteorology as part of a 12-month program at the University of Chicago and served in the Air Force Weather Forecasting program in the mid- to late-1950s. He earned a master's degree in meteorology from the University of Washington in 1960.

In the early 1960s, Jenne was part of a group that set up a major numerical weather forecast center based at the Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska. In an NCAR oral history interview in 2005, he said that he got "kind of itchy" after a decade in the military and looked for new opportunities. He said NCAR proved to be a good fit because "I like a lot of breadth and still to have some time to dig into the details."

When he started at NCAR, the computer section only employed about 30 to 40 people, who were housed in a building on 30th Street in Boulder. The section later moved to the basement of the Mesa Lab.

Dennis Shea, an associate scientist in the Climate and Global Dynamics Laboratory who arrived at NCAR in 1972, remembers Jenne's group back then as the face of NCAR to the university and general science communities.

DSS wasn't just a data provider, either. Shea said Jenne created a user-friendly culture that included informing researchers about the strengths and weaknesses of data sets, participating in research activities, and providing direct programming support. In fact, Jenne, who enjoyed programming, often developed code himself.

During the NCEP/NCAR Reanalysis Program, Jenne and his staff salvaged many raw datasets to make them suitable for assimilation into the reanalyses.

In addition to managing DSS, Jenne developed the data management component of the National Climate Program Office, now part of NOAA, in the late 1970s. He traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, in 1980, to write planning guidance for what became the World Meteorological Organization's World Climate Data & Monitoring Program. He also participated in scientific data exchanges with the Soviet Union, India, and China; served on several National Academy of Sciences committees; and helped plan data strategy for the International Satellite Cloud Climatology Project.

"During my early days at NASA Goddard, one of the first persons at NCAR I interacted with was Roy Jenne," said UCAR President Tony Busalacchi. "Long before data management was a hot topic and well in advance of initiatives like EOSDIS [Earth Observing System Data and Information System] and the Global Change Master Directory, Roy was at the forefront both nationally and internationally in this area. I also have fond remembrances of Roy as a gentleman in all connotations of the word."

Jenne was named a fellow of both the American Meteorological Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Then-Vice President Al Gore personally thanked him for his contribution to an environmental task force in the 1990s.

Jenne officially retired from NCAR in 2007. But Hurrell and NCAR Senior Scientist Kevin Trenberth said that until a few years ago, Jenne was still stopping by their offices to give them hard copies of articles he found of interest.

"That was actually a symbol of him, though: He never really adapted to the internet age," Trenberth said. "Remember his office, piled high with papers, not filed in any way? But he always could pull out the one he wanted."

As recently as a month before his death, Jenne joined colleagues at the Mesa Lab for lunch. "He was happy, asked many questions, and enjoyed a few laughs with friends," Worley said. "We will all miss him."

A memorial gathering for family, friends, and colleagues has been scheduled for the Damon Room at the Mesa Lab on February 16 from 3 to 5 p.m.

Jeff Smith, Science Writer and Public Information Officer