Scientist Specializing in Storms, Lightning and Radar Tracking of Weather to Head Colorado State’s Atmospheric Science Department

Steven Rutledge, who tracks storms across Colorado’s eastern plains and who spent last winter in a remote corner of Brazil studying the rains that inundate the Amazon Basin, has been named head of Colorado State University’s atmospheric science department.

Rutledge, professor of atmospheric science, will wear three hats, administering the College of Engineering academic unit, pursuing his research and teaching interests in the areas of cloud physics and radar meteorology and serving as scientific director of the CSU-CHILL National Radar Facility.

His interest in clouds, in the convective movement of water vapor within them and in lightning took him to Ji Parana near Brazil’s border with Bolivia earlier this year to serve as principal investigator for a complex measurement of Amazonian rainfall, storms and convection and their role in global climate.

The 100-member team led by Rutledge performed a "ground truth check"–a literal confirmation of data provided by a joint Japanese-American satellite, part of the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission launched in late 1997. The North and South American members of the expedition used sophisticated, ground-based radars; high-flying planes; and other instrumentation to verify and calibrate readings from the satellite.

"This was the very first time we’ve ever had a project of this magnitude in tropical South America," Rutledge said. "We have been involved in programs to study convection and rainfall in the Western Pacific and in tropical North Australia, but studying the Amazonian convection was an unprecedented opportunity for all involved. These areas are among the main regions of convection in the world, and they are the driving engines of global atmospheric circulation systems.

"Understanding tropical convection is necessary to understand the role clouds play in global climate change, for example."

The researchers found unusual characteristics in Amazonian weather. Some storms in the region resemble those on the Great Plains of North America, producing lots of lightning. Others, usually later in the season, generated little lightning but resembled monsoons, dumping as much as five inches of rain per day on the Amazon rainforest.

In terms of generating data, according to Rutledge, the expedition’s results were so impressive and extensive that "we’ll be analyzing data in bits and pieces for a decade."

Rutledge also serves as scientific director of the CHILL Doppler radar installations, with sites near Greeley, Colo., and in the Pawnee National Grasslands near the state’s northern border. CHILL (the name represents the two universities, Chicago and Illinois, that developed it) tracks storms, lightning and convective activity within storm cells that develop east of the Rockies.

CHILL, which because of its technical superiority can differentiate between rain and hail, is used for basic research and to train electrical engineering and atmospheric sciences students in the use of radar. Working with the National Weather Service, Rutledge and the CHILL staff are developing techniques to help the forecasters warn of potentially heavy rains and large hail.

Rutledge earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Missouri in 1978 and a doctorate in atmospheric science from the University of Washington in 1983. He taught at Oregon State University before joining Colorado State in 1988.

He will oversee a department with some 200 faculty, staff, researchers and graduate students who investigate such areas as atmospheric chemistry and environmental quality; global, regional and local climate; radiation and remote sensing; regional and local scale analysis and modeling; tropical and marine meteorology; and water resources and the hydrologic cycle.

The department has been designated a Colorado State Program of Research and Scholarly Excellence and conducts $8 million of federally sponsored research annually. The department also works closely with the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere, which conducts a variety of weather and climate-related research. Rutledge is a fellow of the institute.