The following essay is excerpted from conversations with Edwin Kessler, founding director of NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma, conducted by Ariel Cohen and Stephen and Sarah Corfidi of the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center. Cohen and the Corfidis based the discussion in part on Kessler's speech at the 50th anniversary of the School of Meteorology at the University of Oklahoma in October 2010, and Cohen converted this discussion to a Q&A format. The conversations range over many subjects, including accomplishments of NSSL, Kessler's role as its manager, and the many people who were crucial to the lab's growth. The entire conversation is published by BAMS online, but here we've selected Kessler's words regarding the move to Norman, the community that evolved there, and how NSSL thrived there because of—and despite—the bureaucratic changes that federal agencies underwent at that time.—The Editors
In 1963, I was at Travelers Research Center (TRC) in Hartford, Connecticut, working on a small contract for the U.S. Weather Bureau, monitored by Robert Simpson. This study involved a hurricane hunter aircraft and its radar, which had a primitive Doppler capability, and after a familiarization flight in that aircraft, I wrote a brief report that spoke to the effect of sea spray on the Doppler radar velocity indications. Simpson apparently liked the report, and later talked with me about the National Severe Storms Project (NSSP) in Kansas City, which had two managers, Clayton F. Van Thullenar and Chester Newton. Van Thullenar, a career Weather Bureau employee, had been in charge of administration at the unit and was about to retire. Newton had been in charge of the group's scientific mission, and he was leaving for the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. I am somewhat uncertain as to whether my involvement in NSSP was a result of their departures. However, my experience [including at the Weather Radar Branch of the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories] may have filled the gap in science leadership left behind in Newton's departure, and I had authored more than 20 published papers by that time.
Simpson noted that the NSSP had a Weather Radar Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma, where the more open landscape is favorable for radar studies. Simpson had purchased a WSR-57 radar for the Norman laboratory. Scientists at the National Severe Storms Forecast Center (NSSFC) at Kansas City proposed to locate this radar at Olathe, Kansas, near Kansas City, but the attraction of institutional support from the University of Oklahoma was important. Oklahoma University President George Cross was encouraging development of a meteorology group at that school. It seemed to Simpson a good idea to move NSSP to Norman, and he invited me to consider moving to Norman also.
Simpson indicated that he was unsure that he would be able to establish a National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, but that he would try. When I was invited to visit Norman, Simpson said that I would be the director of the laboratory that he was trying to establish. He said I would be taking a risk, and I said that I would take the risk. I recall that I was not hired to become director right away, but rather after a few weeks or very few months.
While I was not surprised by Simpson's offer, I was apprehensive about moving to Oklahoma. Departure from Connecticut by car and arrival in Oklahoma with my older son, Austin, on 23 January 1964 were a big deal for my family and for me. My wife, Lottie Catherine Menger, was from Texas, and she married me to go east, not stay in the west. She was a very good wife, but so much for images. Another less important problem was that a few of our friends in Connecticut had hardly heard of Oklahoma. They had a poor perception of that place, and asked why I would want to go there. Well, the answer was clear. How could a meteorologist turn down an opportunity to help lead the U.S. national effort in severe storm research, especially a meteorologist who had experienced the amazing thunderstorm phenomena that occasionally visit south Texas? My family and I were enthusiastically welcomed in Norman.
During 1963, I traveled to Oklahoma several times and became involved with the local program, which was led by Kenneth Wilk, who had previously been at the Illinois Water Survey and who had also been hired by Simpson. At that time, my connection with TRC was not severed immediately, but after a few weeks or very few months, I eased into my role in Norman. The NSSP was not completely relocated to Norman for quite a few years. However, some people at NSSP did transfer quite soon to Norman. Accompanying Ken Wilk in Norman were radar engineer Dale Sirmans, technicians Walter Watts and Jesse Jennings, hydrologist Jack Teague, meteorologist Neil Ward, and administrator Dorothy Alexander. The Weather Radar Laboratory was upgraded to the NSSL in 1964 and was housed on Westheimer Field, located in Norman in a two-story wooden frame building that had been built as a barracks during World War II. The University of Oklahoma meteorology department was also in Norman. It was located in a building a couple of blocks south of NSSL.
We were augmented at first with well-qualified personnel from Kansas City. Jean T. Lee came and managed our aircraft program. Kathryn Gray came and led data processing, a function that was later managed by Bill Bumgarner. J. T. Dooley came and studied and interpreted data from FAA radars in relation to our WSR-57 radar, which had been earlier obtained from the U.S. Navy, and he later worked with Kathryn Gray. Dale Sanders came and later monitored installation of meteorological sensors on the tall tower of television Channel 4 that was instrumented by our engineers and technicians. While the 1964 upgrade did not represent the end of NSSP, the better landscape—in terms of both the layout of the flat land and the academic setting—in Oklahoma was a continuing pressure for more resources to be invested in Norman operations.
A strong imperative for NSSL at its start was its aircraft program, managed as noted above by J. T. Lee. There was growing concern about the safety of commercial aviation because of several crashes and other mishaps in thunderstorms. The relatively open skies of Oklahoma and excellent views of the horizon were—and are—an excellent environment for research toward improved knowledge of storms and their processes, and toward means for coping with storm hazards, both on the ground and in the air. Our continued involvement with aviation safety issues led to a memorandum in 1976 to the FAA's Wind Shear Program Office, suggesting a surface-based system of anemometers to give continuous reports on winds around airports. During thunderstorms, such winds are often highly variable and sometimes dangerous, and this was probably the first memo from NOAA on this subject. There was difficulty in receiving endorsement from the Environmental Research Laboratories, of which NSSL was and remains a part, because some thought that some scientists working on more advanced systems feared that their work could be jeopardized by implementation of a simpler system. This reflected some level of competition between programs within ERL. However, the competition was limited, because the programs were somewhat different, and I believe the competition was overall a good thing.
When NSSL started up, it was part of the United States Weather Bureau (USWB) led by Robert M. White, and I perceived USWB as a rightfully proud organization with a very important history and with some tremendously respected components. I had thought that there could be no position where a meteorologist could do more for his country (or for his self-image) than to be a leader of the severe storm research program of the greatly respected United States Weather Bureau. At startup in 1964, NSSL reported to Weather Bureau Southern Region Headquarters in Fort Worth. The office there showed much respect for us, treated us well, and we returned that view. But a change was proposed soon. The Environmental Sciences Services Administration (ESSA) was formed in 1965 as a consolidation of agencies within the Department of Commerce, viz., the Weather Bureau and the Coast and Geodetic Survey, and the Central Radio Propagation Laboratory (CRPL) of the National Bureau of Standards. CRPL in ESSA became the Wave Propagation Laboratory (WPL), directed by Gordon Little. Among other programs, WPL led important radar developments that were related to work at NSSL. ESSA was a means for treating the environment as a whole.
In 1970 came further change as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was formed by the merger of ESSA with several marine organizations. NOAA was and remains an important step toward encompassment of a host of environmental organizations and concerns. But, as with any broad administrative change, there were a few downsides. One downside that I regretted was the change of the name “Weather Bureau,” a time-honored name, to “National Weather Service”. The Weather Bureau did indeed perform a service to the rest of us, but somehow the new name did not sufficiently convey to me a sense of pride within and without the organization. I think that the word Service was used in the title because it was thought that funds would come to the agency more easily if its service nature was emphasized.
I was queried by, as I recall, Robert White and NWS Director George Cressman, concerning whether NSSL should be in a new organization, the Environmental Research Laboratories, or whether NSSL should remain part of the renamed Weather Bureau. There was encouragement to join with Boulder through one or more letters, as well as telephone conversations. In the end, I wrote a memo to Cressman and to NOAA Administrator Robert White in which I indicated that either path would be acceptable to me. The result was that NSSL was transferred to the Environmental Research Laboratories, with about a dozen individual laboratories. About half were at different places around our country and the others were in Boulder, Colorado, along with ERL's administrative headquarters.
Another result of the reorganization was unfortunate. The Weather Service lost control of research facilities and promptly struggled to regain them. The best thing about this for NSSL was that many persons in the newly named Weather Service did not realize for quite a few years that NSSL had become administratively separate, and I certainly never did anything to inform, much less to emphasize, our separation. Since practically the whole purpose of NSSL was to produce useful means to the Weather Service for identifying and forecasting weather, warm relationships between NSSL and the Weather Service were essential. But gradually the breach widened and competitive elements came between NSSL and the Weather Service. The breach was perhaps most significant in the case of NSSL versus the NWS Techniques Development Laboratory, managed in Washington, D.C., by William S. Klein.
Of course, the opinions presented here were or are mine, and they may reflect an effect of some isolation from those whose tasks involved a larger picture. However, I did not, and I do not, see downsides to this isolationist philosophy, as we could run the program with minimal interference, with occasional suggestions from headquarters being beneficial. Other opinions may differ, and I was not participating much in the inner councils. And, it is important to remember that successes of NSSL were a result of continuing strong support from NOAA's administrators. Robert M. White was NOAA Administrator until 1977. I had known Bob, both at the Air Force Cambridge Geophysics Laboratories in Massachusetts and at the Travelers Research Center in Connecticut. His great competency in meteorology and his importance as a political figure were extremely important for the Weather Bureau, for ESSA, and for NOAA. And only one person, Bob Simpson, was in the line of authority between Bob White and me when I first came to NSSL. I felt free to call White directly on the phone, but did that only very rarely.
I knew that Bob White wanted accurate assessments, and I recall telling him my impressions [when asked about changing the name of the Weather Bureau to National Weather Service] that people around White were telling him what they thought he wanted to hear. Another occasion involved the proposal to move NSSL out of the Weather Bureau, already mentioned, and still another involved the Monthly Weather Review.
The Monthly Weather Review (MWR) had been the proud publication of the Weather Bureau for some hundred years, but in 1973 it was decided to transfer that publication to the American Meteorological Society. The reason for the transfer was given as budgetary. I hadn't known about this and was concerned when told about it after the fact. My concern was based much in feelings as an ordinary citizen who knew the history of MWR, and it just did not seem right. I called Bob White and told him that had this been known to me, I would have offered $10,000 from NSSL's budget to help keep MWR going as a Weather Service publication. Looking back, perhaps AMS offered to publish MWR when the Weather Service could no longer do so because of a lack of research facilities. Whatever the combination of reasons, the transfer increased a hegemonic quality of the AMS in that all meteorological publications were in the AMS. This somewhat continues today, and AMS advertises its books through its own sources, but not other meteorological books. I am not sure if the transfer of MWR that precipitated the rise of the National Weather Association (NWA) in 1975 also diluted the hegemony the AMS might have held in 1974, though the presence of two meteorological organizations clearly diminishes the influence of just one.
The transfer of MWR also contributed to a perception that the operations functions so central to the Weather Service mission were not sufficiently esteemed or represented in centers of power. I don't know that the NWS had any choice in the matter. It was said to be a result of budgetary problems. I don't know if this transfer was the NWS's way of saying goodbye to its research aspirations.
I think that a result in 1975 was formation of the NWA, whose members were employed by the NWS. I think that some seeds of the NWA were planted with the formation of ERL, and the people who established the NWA felt separation from some of the more theoretical-research-oriented AMS. Although this matter was not central to development of NSSL, it affected my perceptions, and perhaps those of others, of the larger organization of which we were part. Interestingly, this separation also mirrored the apparent disconnect perceived by many that ensued over more than a decade following the migration of the research community to Norman, with the Storm Prediction Center not moving to Norman until much later. Even before this move, forecasters and researchers were not tightly integrated at the NSSFC. I don't recall that the NSSL did anything in particular to modify relations with NSSFC.
There have been important organizational transitions and creations in Norman, necessary for appropriate sharing of the work of the developing program. NSSFC remained in Kansas City after the restructuring of NSSP in 1964, but moved to Norman in 1996 after having had a name change to the Storm Prediction Center. The Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies at the University of Oklahoma was spun off from NSSL and still receives important funding support through NSSL. The Center for Analysis and Prediction of Storms at OU has received much recognition internationally and important funding support from both public and private entities.
The presence in Norman of both the University of Oklahoma and NSSL, and their cooperation, were critical to establishment in Norman of a center of meteorology R&D and applications. Their presence together here has helped greatly to attract well-qualified meteorologists, physicists, engineers, and teachers to Norman, since those with most interest in academia have fine opportunities to work with a federal agency, and employees of the federal agency have opportunities to participate in various ways in the life of academia, and even to teach classes.
Please consider the wood frame WWII barracks building where some of NSSL's best work was done. This building was replaced by a fireproof structure after the similar building that housed the OU Department of Meteorology burned to the ground. And NSSL did need a building that could house a good computer (i.e., that could support the proper air-conditioned environment demanded by modern computers). But not one of the outstanding scientists and engineers who came to NSSL came because of the building, and the best won't come for any new buildings, however grand. And, with somewhat lesser emphasis, they won't come for the salary either. It's not the building that makes the Laboratory and, with lesser emphasis, it is not the salaries; it is the people in the building and the people drawing the salaries. In tight partnership with the Oklahoma University School of Meteorology and with support from NOAA and other agencies, the NSSL has helped create a center of weather research and applications in Norman, well recognized around the world. NSSL is now housed with National Weather Service counterparts in a new building in Norman named the National Weather Center.
The text has benefited greatly from comments by Elbert W. (Joe) Friday, and from Rodger Brown and several other persons mentioned in the text. The authors appreciate Robert Rabin's assistance and encouragement in overseeing the published version of this work.
Supplementary information for this article is available here.