Midpoint Series: Katie Bethea on Joanne Simpson

This guest post from Katie Lorentz Bethea is part of the 2012 Midpoint Series. See all of the posts in the series here.

Hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean runs from June 1 to November 30, the perfect time for a Google Doodle honoring Joanne Simpson, an amazing female meteorologist and hurricane hunter.

Joanne Gerould was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on March 23, 1923. Clouds fascinated her as a child while sailing off the coast of Cape Cod. She was known to be quite tenacious and an avid adventurer – sailing, flying, hiking, diving and more. In college, she became a student pilot at the University of Chicago, which led her into the field of meteorology, eventually becoming the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in that field.

Joanne Simpson

Joanne Simpson is shown here aboard a NOAA Research Flight Facility C-130 in 1973. (Image credit: NASA EO/Fritz Hoelzl, NOAA)

Not only was Dr. Simpson the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in meteorology, but she was also a leader among her research peers, making many significant discoveries and influencing generations of scientists. Among Joanne Simpson’s greatest work was her research showing that clouds are not, as many at the time believed, just a product of weather, but also an essential interactive element of the atmosphere.

Simpson focused her life’s work on tropical clouds, like the huge cumulus and cumulonimbus clouds she filmed and studied over the tropical Pacific in her early career. She wanted to understand how these clouds carry energy from the warm tropical oceans to the upper atmosphere. This work, the idea that hurricanes are “heat engines,” was her most significant discovery. She and her colleague, Herbert Riehl, published their research in 1958 suggesting that it was the cumulonimbus clouds that penetrated the low-energy region and carried energy to upper levels. This basic hot-tower energy-transport idea has become key to understanding Earth’s atmosphere and global climate system.

Joanne Simpson

A photo of Joanne Simpson taken in the 1950s while she was working at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Here she is bent over reams of images of clouds that she filmed during long flights between islands in the tropical Pacific. From the photos, she is drawing detailed maps of cloud formations. (Image credit: NASA EO/Joanne Simpson and the Schlesinger Library)

Simpson spent 24 years with NASA, leading efforts in cloud modeling and space-based meteorological experiments. She led the study team and then was named the project scientist for the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite, which put the first meteorological radar into space in 1997. The TRMM satellite continues to be in operation today, orbiting the tropical latitudes and studying clouds and hurricanes. Simpson considered TRMM her greatest achievement.

Imagine a Doodle full of clouds, shown from space using NASA imagery or from ground photos, honoring Dr. Simpson. It could include swirling hurricanes for the “o’s” and a towering cumulus for the “l.” The Doodle could appear on June 1 in honor of the first day of the Atlantic hurricane season, or on Dr. Simpson’s birthday in March. Dr. Simpson and her life’s work in studying clouds and hurricanes deserve such an honor.

— Katie Bethea


Katie Lorentz Bethea has been a science writer and public affairs specialist with SSAI at NASA’s Langley Research Center for 8 years in a group that studies Earth’s atmosphere. She has grown to love atmospheric science, but her background is in Biology. In fact, she has a B.S. in Biology, along with a B.A. in English and an M.A. in Composition and Rhetoric, all from the University of South Carolina. She’s a BIG Gamecock fan! Katie loves to travel with her husband Pat and to knit.

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