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Science Sneaked Up on Jim Fankhauser

Jim Fankhauser. (Photo by Bob Bumpas.)

One of the best-kept secrets of Jim Fankhauser is his Renaissance-man background. Jim, a meteorologist retiring from NCAR this summer after nearly 30 years, was heretical enough to finish a bachelor's degree in humanities, then turn around and get graduate-level credentials in meteorology.

"I took history, social science, and psychology as an undergraduate, but no physical science whatsoever," says Jim. "It's incomprehensible."

Jim made up for lost time when he entered the U.S. Air Force ("which was nothing more for me than draft-dodging the Army") and got the meteorology bug. He joined the U.S. Weather Bureau not long after the Korean War. The Bureau, in turn, sent him to graduate school at the University of Chicago, where he met his soon-to-be mentor, Chester Newton. In typically self-effacing fashion, Jim calls Chester "the underlying reason for any success I may have had."

After spending 18 months here in the early 1960s on loan from the Weather Bureau, Jim joined Chester's synoptic meteorology group at NCAR in 1967. "We were a pretty odd group," he says. "Very few of us shared common interests, but between us we covered a wide breadth." Chester, according to Jim, served as "a true mentor without ever trying to be."

Jim's focus in the 1970s was the National Hail Research Experiment, a huge field program based in northeast Colorado near Grover. "My interests were always in convection-the details of thunderstorm structure and initiation on various scales." NHRE's support, Jim believes, was driven largely by similar research in Russia and resulting U.S. nervousness. However, "we did have a fairly legitimate and productive scientific core and some pretty famous people involved." Jim and most of the other NHRE scientists later moved into the former Convective Storms Division, which became the Mesoscale and Microscale Meteorology Division in 1987.

It takes some doing to get Jim to acknowledge his own success. With a little prodding, he'll admit to at least a few lasting accomplishments. One is a technique developed with Jim O'Brien (now at Florida State University) that accounts for errors in estimating vertical velocities. "It's always been an elusive problem, because velocities are so small in the vertical relative to the horizontal [usually on the order of 10 centimeters per second, as opposed to 10 meters per second for horizontal winds]. This allows errors to develop and accumulate with height." The technique Jim developed with O'Brien distributes these errors through the vertical column and thus reduces their impact at any given level.

Another satisfaction of Jim's has been "the analysis of fairly complicated and diverse data sets from large field programs. I've always found it stimulating and challenging to amalgamate these into a cohesive picture." Much of this work has involved aircraft measurements, which he enjoyed collecting as much as analyzing. "I had an advantage-we used mostly light aircraft, which allows the scientist to sit in the cockpit and establish a rapport with the pilot. I really don't like to fly in the back of a large plane where you can't see anything or actively participate in the decision-making."

Jim is easing into retirement. After going part-time in 1993, he officially retired on 9 June but is maintaining his MMM office and coming in as he likes. "I'm analyzing data sets from CaPE [the Convection and Precipitation/Electrification Experiment] and having a good time doing it. Even though the salary stops, I'm not going to. I'll keep doing this work until I don't enjoy it. My work has always been my hobby." •BH

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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
Last revised: Wed Mar 29 17:28:10 MST 2000