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Summer 2000

The first holder of UCAR's Distinguished Chair is exactly that

by Bob Henson

Joachim Kuettner. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

When UCAR established its Distinguished Chair for Atmospheric Science and International Research in late 1994, Joachim Kuettner accepted a two-year appointment. Nobody, including Kuettner, foresaw that he would still occupy the post in 2000.

At the age of 90, Kuettner remains vigorous. He served as head of the U.S. project office for MAP, the Mesoscale Alpine Project (see accompanying article), a reflection of Kuettner's 60-year-plus interest in the airflow in and near mountains. Kuettner is also studying related wave behavior through several modest projects financed by a discretionary fund that's part of his endowed chair. "You can do very small projects, which is really fun," Kuettner says.

Kuettner was exactly the prototype NSF wanted when it created the position, according to Jay Fein, director of the NSF/ATM Climate Dynamics Program. "Bob Corell [assistant director for geosciences at NSF] suggested we should do more to recognize long-term contributions to the geosciences," he says. Fein and colleagues Richard Greenfield and Pamela Stephens "immediately came to the same conclusions: a great way to recognize excellence would be an endowed chair at UCAR, and the first honoree should be Joach Kuettner."

NSF supports the chair by providing for salary and research expenses. Although the chair is currently housed at UCAR, future appointees might work elsewhere. The home institution contributes office space and some modest administrative support. Every two years, the appointment is reviewed, and it may then be extended, as happened with Kuettner in 1997 and 1999.

The key element of the chair is freedom: the chance for a scientific leader to tackle some long-standing questions without the usual scramble for grant money. "There's absolutely no formal approval process," says UCAR president Rick Anthes. "As a courtesy, Joach has always bounced his ideas off me, and occasionally I talk to Jay [Fein] about it. As long as what he proposes is reasonable, there's never a question."

Of the projects he's worked on since his appointment, Kuettner is especially proud of MAP. "It involved many years of preparation and difficulties, but it came out beautifully."

Kuettner's interest in atmospheric waves began in the 1930s, when he studied them as a graduate student in meteorology at the University of Hamburg. For his dissertation, he organized a project that used 22 gliders, equipped with vertical-motion and temperature recorders, in a contest to sample the waves. The result was the first proof of the phenomenon's wavelike character. Before Kuettner could launch his research career, World War II intervened. Although he had hoped to fly weather reconnaissance, Kuettner ended up testing various aircraft, including the Gigant, then the world's largest airplane.

Kuettner emigrated to the United States in the 1950s, where he maintained his own scientific interests while honing his project-management skills. Kuettner worked on the U.S. Air Force's Sierra Wave Project as field director and project scientists, establshing a glider altitude record of 43,000 feet. He also served as scientific director of the Mount Washington Observatory. In the 1960s, Kuettner joined NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and directed the center's involvement in the Mercury project, the nation's first effort to put people into space. He later became head of systems integration for the Apollo project.

Before long Kuettner was back in weather, where his NASA experience helped him to steer a number of international field projects. The World Meteorological Agency appointed Kuettner as the international director of GATE, the Global Atmospheric Research Program's huge Atlantic Tropical Experiment (1974). He headed a number of other international experiments in the 1970s and 1980s.

Kuettner jointly directed (with Veerabhadran Ramanathan) the Central Equatorial Pacific Experiment (1992). He was intrigued by the thermostat hypothesis of Ramanathan (Scripps Institution of Oceanography) and Albert Collins (now at NCAR), which holds that the upper bound to tropical ocean temperatures is set by thunderstorms and cirrus clouds that increase with warmer waters and reduce solar radiation at the sea surface. "When I first met Ramanathan, I got so interested in the topic that we started working together. In such projects one always has to try to fully understand the scientific problem. You may not be able to solve it, but you must really understand it. Otherwise you make the wrong decisions in the field."

In recent years Kuettner has used an instrumented motor glider to explore the fine structure of gravity waves over convective currents. Next year he hopes to work with Phil Ecklund, a retired senior pilot with United Airlines and former president of the Boulder Soaring Association. They'd send Eklund's Cessna 210 into bands of potential vorticity [PV] predicted by mesoscale models in the lee of the Colorado Rockies. "We want to verify their existence in the predicted location and find out whether they play a role in determining where low-pressure centers form."

Kuettner doesn't see any magic ingredient for his longevity as a working scientist. "I'm surprised myself. I think it's primarily luck. Of course, you have to monitor your health as you monitor the weather. Above all, you have to keep your curiosity alive."


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Edited by Carol Rasmussen, carolr@ucar.edu
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Last revised: Fri Sep 1 16:44:56 MDT 2000