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Member profile: University of Washington

If two words can characterize the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Washington, they are "breadth" and "interactions." These are the two facets that chairman Norbert Untersteiner points to as distinctive of his department. Active research and instructional programs cover nearly every subdiscipline of the atmospheric sciences, and there are multiple overlaps and collaborations with other departments and institutions.

Evidence of the department's breadth is a lengthy list of current research area.

The bachelor's program provides a comprehensive curriculum in weather forecasting, air pollution and air chemistry, climate change, radiative transfer, and boundary-layer processes. And as of last year, the department has offered an undergraduate minor in atmospheric science.

One measure of the department's interactions is its strong and enduring ties with UCAR. Phil E. Church represented the university at a 1958 planning conference to discuss the establishment of a National Institute for Atmospheric Research, and UW has been a UCAR member since UCAR's inception in 1959. UW faculty have served on the board of trustees (including current board member Conway Leovy) and numerous UCAR and UOP advisory committees. Faculty members have joined UCAR staff and vice versa.

UW professor Kristina Katsaros is also director, Departement d'Oceanographie Spatiale, IFREMER, Centre de Brest, France. Another UW professor, Michael Wallace, doubles as director of the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean (JISAO), a cooperative effort with NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. The institute was established to foster collaborations between PMEL and UW's atmospheric sciences department and School of Oceanography. The major atmospheric science focus in JISAO is the problem of physical and biogeochemical mechanisms of climate variability.

There are affiliate faculty at PMEL, the UW Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Battelle's Pacific Northwest Laboratories, and UCAR. Nine faculty members hold joint appointments in the UW departments of Geophysics, Applied Mathematics, and Oceanography; or in APL. Atmospheric sciences faculty hold a total of 13 adjunct appointments with the departments of Chemistry, Civil Engineering, Geophysics, Astronomy, Applied Mathematics, Oceanography, and Environmental Health; APL; and the Quaternary Research Center.

The research facilities reflect the interdepartmental interdisciplinary emphasis. Those on campus include clean rooms, cold rooms, a chemistry lab, a temperature/humidity controlled lab, a machine shop, electronic labs, and a wind tunnel. A joint project with the chemistry department is a state-of-the-art clean room and lab for research on trace gases in the atmosphere. There's a mobile Doppler radar and, stationed at Paine Field, an instrumented Convair C-131 aircraft that has flown research missions in many parts of the world. This aircraft is currently due for replacement by a Convair 580 twin-engine turboprop.

Other facilities are in more remote sites. The Cheeka Peak Atmospheric Research Station, on land leased from the Makah Indian Nation in the Olympic Mountains, is a unique site for monitoring the background chemistry and aerosol content of pristine marine air at midlatitudes. When the wind is blowing from the west, the station is predicted to have the cleanest air in the Northern Hemisphere. Plans for research there include continuous monitoring of atmospheric chemistry, precipitation chemistry, aerosols, and radiation, and cooperative atmospheric and cloud chemistry projects with PNL, PMEL, and Oregon State University.

Blue Glacier field station, established in 1957 on Mount Olympus, is the only permanent research facility alongside a glacier in the United States. There, UW researchers have kept an almost continuous record of the mass balance of the glacier. For the past eight years, the measurements have included a seismic record.

The Friday Harbor Laboratories provide facilities for oceanographic research and instruction. A complex of 61 buildings on 1,856 acres on San Juan Island north of the town of Friday Harbor, the labs have direct access to salt waters relatively free of pollution and to diverse intertidal areas of rock, sand, and mud, for research programs in zoology, health sciences, fisheries, botany, and oceanography.

The department's roots go back to World War II, when Church arrived at the university to teach climatology in the geography department. In 1946 atmospheric sciences was established as a degree-granting program and the faculty grew by three: Franklin Badgley, Robert Fleagle, and Richard Reed. After that, says Untersteiner, "the growth curve would look very typical of our kind of department: rapid in the postwar period, a pause, rapid growth in the 'fat science' years, leveling in the mid-80s."

Today, the number of state-funded academic faculty is 14.6 FTE (distributed over 19 individuals); research faculty supported by grants and contracts numbers 12. Two faculty members belong to the National Academy of Sciences and two have received the prestigious Rossby medal from the American Meteorological Society. Student enrollment is at 25 to 30 undergraduate majors and about 70 graduate students, and Untersteiner does not expect those numbers to grow. In fact, like many in the atmospheric sciences community, he is concerned about the job market for future graduates, particularly Ph.D.s. So far, he says, UW atmospheric sciences graduates have been much in demand. "It appears we are providing the market with the people they want." But a change is becoming noticeable. "For the first time we have some who are staying on as postdocs a little longer. And these are very good people who would have been snapped up in earlier years. They're improving their competitiveness for the next job that comes up. We shouldn't just keep producing Ph.D.s as if this weren't happening. We may have to somehow consciously scale down graduate programs."

The shrinking job market is related to the general change in funding priorities, and that shapes how Untersteiner sees the future of the department. "We are braced for tough times like everyone else. The writing is on the wall, and it's not just here; this is a worldwide trend. If you read statements by academicians and ministers of science in Norway, Germany, France ... through it all goes this red thread. We have to think more about the immediate utility and social justification of what we do. We can't take for granted that because it's science it's desirable and useful. On the other hand, if research funding goes down there's nothing that says we have to do project X, which happens to be very expensive; if we're clever we'll find something equally useful but less costly. I'm not really pessimistic," he concludes. "In the long run, there is simply a need for what we do."


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Last revised: Tue Apr 4 09:06:54 MDT 2000