UCAR > Communications > Staff Notes > January 1995 Search

Charlie Chappell Has Done It All
(Except Retire)

Photo of Charlie Chappell><br>
<i>Charlie Chappell.  (Photo by Curt Zukosky.)</i><p>

Perhaps the ribbing was inevitable.  At Charlie Chappell's going-away 
party--held at the Cooperative Program for Operational Meteorology, 
Education and Training (COMET) last month--the guest of honor 
received some good-humored roasts about his inability to make 
retirement stick.  Charlie retired from NOAA in 1988 and almost 
immediately joined the Research Applications Program to head up its 
applied research program.  He got involved in early planning for 
COMET and, before he could make his exit from working life, found 
himself helping to design COMET's residence courses, teaching in 
those courses, and eventually managing the COMET outreach 

This time around, Charlie has figured out what's going on:  It's not as if this mesoscale expert hasn't paid his dues. Charlie has been in on some of the biggest trends in storm-related meteorology just as they were getting started. A native of the St. Louis area, Charlie originally intended a career in electrical engineering, completing an EE degree at Washington University just after World War II. He worked for McDonnell Aircraft for a few years before a childhood interest beckoned. "I'd always been interested in weather. I'd had my own weather station, and in high school I wrote a weather column for my county newspaper. I'd always considered it a hobby, but then I realized somewhat belatedly that I loved my hobby more than my work, so I switched them around."

Several years of nighttime work at McDonnell and daytime schooling in meteorology at St. Louis University resulted in a position at the extended-forecast section of the National Meteorological Center under Jerome Namias. After he realized "that wasn't my cup of tea," Charlie transferred to an observing position in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 1956 he joined the fledgling Severe Local Storms Forecast Center in Kansas City, Missouri. As a SELS forecaster, he helped issue some of the nation's earliest tornado watches (then called "forecasts") while working with such folks as current NCAR retiree Chester Newton.

"I had never finished my master's degree," recalls Charlie, "so in 1964 my boss put me in for a NOAA fellowship without my even knowing about it." Charlie wound up with a year of subsidized study at Colorado State University, where Ferdinand Baer, William Gray, Herbert Riehl, and others were launching an atmospheric science department. Charlie ended up taking three years of leave from NOAA to finish his doctorate while going back to work at SELS each spring during storm season. Charlie's dissertation involved a cloud-seeding project near Climax, Colorado. That experience pushed him toward a new interest: cloud microphysics and precipitation processes.

After two years directing a weather modification program at Utah State University, Charlie came to NOAA's Environmental Research Laboratory (ERL) in Boulder to launch a field program, but it fell through in early 1973 for lack of funding. "That's when Gene Bollay [now retired] and I put our heads together and decided this would be a good time to start a mesoscale research group. At first we had Mike Fritsch [now a professor at Pennsylvania State University], then pretty quickly we had Bob Maddox [National Severe Storms Laboratory director], Everett Nickerson [still at NOAA/ERL] and some others."

A highlight of Charlie's time at NOAA was one discovery that grew out of the Big Thompson Canyon flood of 31 July 1976. "We noticed that when those floods occurred, there was a big mesoscale system sitting overhead." Maddox named the culprit a mesoscale convective complex, and such entities (now called mesoscale convective systems) were soon recognized as major players in summertime flooding throughout the central and eastern United States, including the great Mississippi and Missouri floods of 1993.

Charlie's precipitation expertise has been pivotal in developing several of COMET's computer-based learning modules, including ones on heavy rain and flash-flood forecasting and an upcoming series on thunderstorm tracking. True to form, he'll remain with COMET for a few hours each week. "I got into meteorology at the beginning of the last revolution," he says, "when radar and rawinsondes were being used for the first time. We were seeing the atmosphere in 3-D and seeing some of the finer details of weather. I'm leaving as the next revolution revs up with Doppler radar, automated observing stations, profilers, and this flood of weather data requiring workstations to convert data into information we can use. It's been an interesting 40 years." --BH

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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
Last revised: Wed Mar 29 12:32:53 MST 2000