Three women meteorologists for International Women’s Day 2017

On International Women’s Day 2017 I could write about famous women that lots of people (although still not enough) already know about. I could write honouring the wonderful women in my life, but other social media platforms are the way to do that. Instead I would like to introduce you to three influential voices of women in Meteorology, recognising my multiple work roles as a climate scientist, President of the Royal Meteorological Society and Dean for Diversity and Inclusion. Forgive the length of the post, there is so much to say about each!

Eunice Foote (1819-1888) was both a scientist and a proponent of women’s rights. As has come to light over only the past few years (work by Sorenson in 2011, and more recently Katherine Hayhoe), Foote conducted early work on what we now call the greenhouse effect. The experiments investigated the warming effect of the sun on air, including how this was increased by carbonic acid gas (carbon dioxide), and bear a striking resemblance to some outreach experiments still used today. She also speculated on how an atmosphere of this gas might affect climate. “An atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a high temperature; and if as some suppose, at one period of its history the air had mixed with it a larger proportion than at present, an increased temperature from its own action as well as from increased weight must have necessarily resulted.”

Her paper “Circumstances affecting the heat of the sun’s rays,” was presented by Prof. Joseph Henry at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in 1856, three years before Irish scientist John Tyndall started working on the gas. Interestingly, a contemporary account describes the occasion as follows: “Prof. Henry then read a paper by Mrs. Eunice Foote, prefacing it with a few words, to the effect that science was of no country and of no sex. The sphere of woman embraces not only the beautiful and the useful, but the true.”

Eunice was a member of the editorial committee for the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention to be organized by women, and one of the  68 women and 32 men who signed the convention’s Declaration of Sentiments.  One of the opening paragraphs of this declaration, based on the Declaration of independence reads:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed. Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these rights, it is the right of those who suffer from it to refuse allegiance to it, and to insist upon the institution of a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness”

And it concludes:

“In entering upon the great work before us, we anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, and ridicule; but we shall use every instrumentality within our power to effect our object.”

This strikes me as still relevant to both Equality and climate change work today.

Eleanor Ormerod (1828-1901) was the first woman to be made a Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society. Passionate about insects from childhood, she became an authority on “Injurious insects and Farm Pests”. Her works was honoured in time by Royal Horticultural Society who awarded her the Flora medal, the Royal Agricultural Society who appointed her as consulting entomologist, the University of Moscow from whom she received silver and gold medals from the University of Moscow for her models of insects injurious to plants and the Société nationale d’acclimatation de France who awarded her a silver medal.

Eleanor often tested out the effect of insects on herself, for example:

“Miss Ormerod, to personally test the effect, pressed part of the back and tail of a live Crested Newt between the teeth.”The first effect was a bitter astringent feeling in the mouth, with irritation of the upper part of the throat, numbing of the teeth more immediately holding the animal, and in about a minute from the first touch of the newt a strong flow of saliva. This was accompanied by much foam and violent spasmodic action, approaching convulsions, but entirely confined to the mouth itself. The experiment was immediately followed by headache lasting for some hours, general discomfort of the system, and half an hour after by slight shivering fits.” –Gadow, 1909

Eleanor’s link with meteorology came via her brother, much of her interest being in the relationship of weather to insects. She compiled and analyzed weather data extensively, and published in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society. I chose Eleanor because of the link between entomology, my late father’s field, and meteorology, mine. In addition, she is said to have been the inspiration for Gaskells heroine in Wives and Daughters and for a short story by Virginia Woolf; an excellent cross-over between science and literature.

(Gadow, Hans 1909. Amphibia and Reptiles. Macmillan and Co. London.)

Joanne Simpson (1923-2010) was the first female meteorologist with a Ph.D. Fascinated by clouds as a child, she might well have gone into astrophysics were it not for the intervention of World War II. As a trainee pilot she had to study meteorology and after getting her training from Carl Gustaf Rossby’s new World War II meteorology programme, spent the war years teaching meteorology to Aviation cadets. Her PhD work focussed on clouds, then regarded as not a particularly important part of the subject, but her early research based revealed cloud patterns from maps drawn from films taken on tropical flights. Subsequently she went on to show how tropical “hot tower” clouds actually drive the tropical circulation, and to propose a new process by which hurricanes maintain their “warm core”.

Following stints at UCLA, NOAA and the University of Virginia, Joanne ended up at NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre where for the first time she met other women meteorologists. It was here that she made what she described as the single biggest accomplishment in her career. She was asked to lead the “study” science team for the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) – a satellite carrying the first space-based rain radar. Working with project engineers and recruiting many scientists, Joanne worked on TRMM from 1986 until its launch in 1997. TRMM has led to many discoveries about tropical rainfall, including in 2002 the ability to estimate latent heat in the tropics. This work linked directly back to Joanne’s early work on tropical cloud processes.

Rightly recognised, Joanne was granted membership to the National Academy of Engineering, awarded the Carl-Gustaf Rossby Award (the highest honor bestowed by the American Meteorological Society), presented with a Guggenheim Fellowship. I chose Joanne because she served as President of the American Meteorological Society, as I am serving as President of the Royal Meteorological Society this year. You can read much more about Joanne Simpson in this excellent portrait at NASA.

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