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Norman Phillips, former meteorology department head, dies at 95

A theoretical meteorology pioneer, Phillips showed that numerical models could predict weather and developed the first general circulation model of Earth’s climate.
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Norman Phillips
Norman Phillips
Photo courtesy of the MIT Museum.

Norman A. Phillips, head of the former Department of Meteorology during the 1970s, died on March 15 at the age of 95. His work in atmospheric science showing monthly and seasonal tropospheric patterns led to the creation of first general circulation model, which became the bedrock of weather and climate study today.

Phillips’ introduction to the study of weather, which later blossomed into a passion, started when he was relatively young. Born to Alton Elmer Anton Phillips and Linnea (Larson) Phillips in 1923, Norman Phillips began his life in Chicago, Illinois. He entered the University of Chicago in 1940 to pursue chemistry. However, when World War II began, he was inspired by the work of University of Chicago’s Carl-Gustaf Rossby — now known as the "father of meteorology" and who helped to establish the Department of Meteorology at MIT — to train weather officers and take up a field he had never before encountered. He enlisted in the program, established by Rossby, with the U.S. Army Air Corps. Here, Phillips received computation meteorology training in Mississippi, at the University of Michigan, and in Illinois.

Deployed to the Azores, he obtained atmospheric data and created daily forecasts for the Allied troops in spite of difficult weather conditions and communications difficulties. Working alongside experienced meteorologists, Phillips developed incredible insight and appreciation for the work. After the war, he was discharged as a first lieutenant and returned to Chicago to resume his studies, now with a focus on meteorology. Phillips earned bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in 1947, 1948, and 1951, respectively. At this point, the field was just getting off the ground.

Phillips’ first major contribution to meteorology and the creation of reliable forecasting came during his PhD thesis work. Around the time the first computers were coming online, in 1950, the first numerical forecast was generated. It was developed to better understand how weather systems develop and intensify. It treated the atmosphere as a single layer, however, and subsequently meteorologists like Rossby considered a “two-level model” which better captured the dynamics of the atmosphere. Phillips combined this newer model with the work on baroclinic instability by Jule Charney, another giant in the field who later worked alongside and headed the department at MIT after Phillips. This allowed for the numerical growth of atmospheric waves that resembled those in the real world.

Shortly before finishing his degree, Phillips joined the Electronic Computer Project at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, with Charney and several other leading meteorologists with whom Phillips would work with over his career. Expanding on these models, he applied his work to the same cyclonic weather system Phillips used for his thesis and made the first computer simulation reproducing it. “It was my understanding that it was the success with this storm that convinced the Weather Bureau, the Air Force, and the Navy to set up the original version of the NMC [National Meteorological Center] in 1954. This was the Joint Numerical Weather Prediction Unit…” said Phillips in a seminar at MIT in 1988.

After a brief stint in Stockholm to assist Rossby set up a weather model there, Phillips spent time in Oslo understanding the troposphere and different cells of atmospheric circulation capable to transporting heat. In Princeton, Phillips applied this to his general circulation model and was able to construct a forecast, which would breakdown after about a month. He also showed that fronts formed as a result of cyclogenesis, not the other way around as previously thought. This significant achievement became the first climate general circulation model.

Around this time, MIT was building a powerhouse of meteorological and oceanographic experts; in the summer of 1956, then department head Henry Houghton recruited Jule Charney and Norman Phillips. While here, he held the titles of research associate, associate professor, and professor. He led the Department of Meteorology — a precursor to today’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) — for four years, beginning in 1970. Phillips left an indelible mark on MIT and the broader scientific community. He served on numerous national and international committees. As co-editor of the Journal of Atmospheric Science, he took it upon himself to ensure publications of the highest quality.

In July of 1974, Phillips left for the National Weather Service at the National Meteorological Center to pursue numerical weather prediction and data assimilation. He stayed there for four years before retiring in 1988; however, possessing an agile mind, he continued to publish well into his golden years.

Phillips’ research had dramatically changed the way we think about our atmosphere; for these contributions to the field of meteorology, he has been recognized with numerous honors. In 2003, Phillips along with Joseph Smagorinsky received the Benjamin Franklin Medal from the National Weather Service, National Meteorological Center “for their major contributions to the prediction of weather and climate using numerical methods.”

Their seminal and pioneering studies led to the first computer models of weather and climate, as well as to an understanding of the general circulation of the atmosphere, including the transports of heat and moisture that determine the Earth's climate. In addition, Smagorinsky played a leading role in establishing the current global observational network for the atmosphere, and Phillips' leadership fostered the development of effective methods for the use of observations in data assimilation systems.

The American Meteorological Society also selected him for the highly prestigious distinction of an honorary member. From the same institution, he received the Meisinger Award, the Editor’s Award, the Carl-Gustaf Rossby Award (it’s highest honor), the Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Advance of Applied Meteorology, and was appointed a distinguished lecturer. Among his other honors, Phillips was also presented with the Napier Shaw Prize, elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and presented the 6th World Meteorological Organization’s lecture.

Phillips was predeceased by his beloved wife Martha (Nissen) Phillips, whom he married in 1945; his daughter Ruth Walsh; and sister Alice (Phillips) Westphal. Phillips is survived by daughters Janet Grigsby and Ellen Chasse. He is also survived by grandsons Stephen Walsh, Matthew Grigsby, Christopher Grigsby, Derek Chasse and Keith Chasse, plus great grandchildren Ryan and Riley Walsh and Morgan and Travis Chasse.

A memorial service will be held on June 29 at 11 a.m. at the Rivet Funeral Home, 425 Daniel Webster Highway in Merrimack, New Hampshire.

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