Early Years and Education

Suomi was born December 6, 1915, in Eveleth, Minnesota. He received a B.E. in 1938 from Winona Teachers' College, Winona, Minnesota. Suomi taught science in Minnesota high schools from 1938 through 1941. At the start of World War II, he enrolled in a civil air patrol course and began studying meteorology. He was so taken with the new science that he decided to study at the University of Chicago and teach practical meteorology to pilots. Suomi came to the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1948 as one of the first faculty members in the Department of Meteorology. In 1953, he received his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. He taught at UW-Madison for his entire career, except for appointments as Associate Program Director for Atmospheric Sciences in the National Science Foundation (1962) and Chief Scientist of the U.S. Weather Bureau (1964). Suomi retired from formal teaching in 1986 but continued teaching a weekly undergraduate meteorology course as a professor emeritus.
Excerpted from EOS, Transactions, American Geophysical Union, v. 76, no. 45, 1995. Posted with AGU permission.

Flat Plate Radiometer

Verner Suomi's major contributions to space engineering began in the late 1950s when he and Robert Parent, a University of Wisconsin professor of electrical engineering, developed an instrument designed to measure the Earth's heat balance from a satellite. The flat plate radiometer is simple and essentially error free; it can be calibrated by viewing the Sun, space, and Earth in sequence from a spinning satellite. This radiometer flew on the U.S. TIROS, ITOS and DMSP series of satellites; an earlier version was flown on Explorer VII. In addition to the flat plate radiometer for satellite sensing, Suomi developed a series of economical net flux radiometersondes to measure the infrared cooling rates of the atmosphere and infer the radiation balance of the earth-atmosphere system. Through analysis of these satellite and balloon observations, Suomi and his students established that radiative energy fluxes within the atmosphere vary markedly due to the effect of clouds and other absorbing constituents. They also showed that the Earth was darker than originally believed because less solar energy was directly reflected to space. These seminal investigations were among the first to use a space platform to monitor the global energy budget. They set a standard for studying how this budget is being altered by both natural and human processes.
Excerpted from EOS, Transactions, American Geophysical Union, v. 76, no. 45, 1995. Posted with AGU Permission.

Spin-Scan Cloud Camera

The Spin-Scan Cloud Camera, introduced by Verner Suomi in 1963, represented a revolutionary milestone in satellite instrumentation. This brilliant technical idea formed the scientific foundation for geosynchronous satellite imaging for the world's operational weather services. The Spin-Scan Cloud Camera in geosynchronous orbit made it possible to observe weather systems at intervals as small as a few minutes and hence to measure the dynamics of many phenomena, for example, air motion, cloud height and growth rates, rainfall location and amounts, and the extent of atmospheric pollution. Other satellite systems produced interesting aperiodic pictures, but the geostationary Spin-Scan Cloud Camera data enabled evolutionary time sequence studies that described weather accurately and permitted the research necessary for operational applications. Satellite sensing thus moved from qualitative viewing to quantitative measurement, from a research curiosity to an operational necessity.

The idea for the camera was first conceived while Suomi was serving as the first Chief Scientist for the National Weather Service. He sought to develop a system that could take frequent observations of a single weather phenomenon and provide time-rate-of-change information about the weather. To achieve the necessary geostationary orbit, 22,000 miles away from Earth, profound design problems had to be overcome. Suomi and Robert Parent solved these by using a spinning satellite to provide inertial stability and a small scanning reflective telescope that scanned swaths of the Earth progressively to create whole Earth images. These cameras were first flown on the Applications Technology Satellite series (ATS I and III) in the 1960s and they provided eight years of high quality, accurate images of the Earth's surface and atmosphere.
Excerpted from EOS, Transactions, American Geophysical Union, v. 76, no. 45, 1995. Posted with AGU permission.

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Beyond the Spin-Scan Camera

Two operational systems were based on the spin scan design: NASA's Synchronous Meteorological Satellite and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Geosynchronous Operational Environmental Satellite. The spin-scan design has also been adopted by the European Space Agency and the Japanese Meteorological Agency for their operational meteorological satellite programs. The development and application of a global geostationary imaging capability has had many positive consequences. It has saved thousands of lives and millions of dollars from the ravages of storms; it has made meteorological satellite data routinely available to many nations that otherwise could not afford it; and, in conjunction with improvements in numerical weather prediction, it has helped two and four day forecasts to become as accurate as one and two day forecasts once were.
Excerpted from EOS, Transactions, American Geophysical Union, v. 76, no. 45, 1995. Posted with AGU permission.

VISSR Atmospheric Sounder Experiment (VAS)

The VISSR Atmospheric Sounder Experiment (VAS), begun in 1971, was proposed by Suomi to sound the atmosphere's temperature and water vapor distribution from a geostationary satellite. The instrument was designed to have high spatial resolution for observing mesoscale features of the atmosphere, the scale at which severe weather occurs and evolves. Sensing the spectral distribution of radiation emitted by the atmosphere from geostationary orbit at high resolution required considerable technology due to the low levels of terrestrial energy received at such high altitudes within the instrument's small field of view. The VAS was a modification of Suomi's original spin-scan system, with additional detectors added to cover the necessary spectral bands. The successful performance of VAS was demonstrated shortly after it was launched on GOES-4 in 1980. Temporal and spatial variations of temperature and water vapor associated with severe convection and weather were observed and retrieved with the accuracy set forth in Suomi's 1971 proposal. These observations of mesoscale weather are now being used by the National Weather Service for warning purposes. The geostationary sounder remains the only instrument with sufficient temporal and spatial resolution to observe the evolution of severe storms over a region of several hundred thousand square miles. Data from VAS showed the potential to predict hurricane tracks much more accurately, to aid in tornado forecasting, and to provide basic input for numerical models. The operational need for geostationary sounding, demonstrated with VAS, is now fulfilled with the GOES-8/9 sounders.
Excerpted from EOS, Transactions, American Geophysical Union, v. 76, no. 45, 1995. Posted with AGU permission.

Man Computer Interactive Data Access System (McIDAS)

Suomi also directed the development and evolution of the Man Computer Interactive Data Access System (McIDAS), to achieve rapid and versatile access to the spin-scan camera data. This system analyzes and interprets millions of satellite and other types of observations rapidly and enables the human eye to interpret the results. McIDAS was initially conceived as a way to produce accurate cloud motion measurements from ATS, SMS, and GOES satellite data. Through efficient and rapid access to satellite image data, meteorologists can view wind and other information over land and ocean routinely. McIDAS evolved into a powerful data management tool used in many national and international weather centers for both meteorological research and operational forecasting. It is also used as an educational tool in atmospheric science programs throughout the United States and in industrial operations where timely weather data is essential.
Excerpted from EOS, Transactions, American Geophysical Union, v. 76, no. 45, 1995. Posted with AGU permission.

Observing, Forecasting, the Planets and GARP Formation

Suomi contributed to the advance of observational and forecast capabilities through several other activities. The list includes: design of the balloon borne radioaltimeter to measure the height of meteorological balloons, pioneering work on microwave antennas for the next generation of atmospheric sounders, and leadership of the University of Wisconsin team that developed radiation experiments for EXPLORER VII and for the TIROS satellites. He was also a member of the Venus/Mercury 1973 Imaging Science Team, NASA's Mariner/Jupiter/Saturn Imaging Science Team, and the Pioneer Venus Science Steering Group. Suomi was actively involved in determining our nation's future course through his committee work on the NASA Advisory Committee on Scientific Uses of Space Stations. On the international front, Suomi was one of the driving forces of the Global Atmospheric Research Program (GARP), which resulted in the first comprehensive, year-long observation of the world's weather. GARP's data would be used by researchers for the rest of the century.

Suomi continued to explore new ideas in his last days. In particular, he was developing the sea surface sonde--a device for measuring the total flow of heat from the ocean into the atmosphere. Measurements from this instrument would not only provide ground truth data for satellite-based remote sensing but also directly contribute to the understanding of the climatology of these parameters. Energy processes over the ocean are a prime focus of current meteorological research and are critical to understanding the atmosphere as a global system. Initial tests proved to be very promising. Suomi was also exploring and advocating the use of commercial satellites to geometrically infer vertical distributions of temperature and moisture through their occultation events.
Excerpted from EOS, Transactions, American Geophysical Union, v. 76, no. 45, 1995. Posted with AGU permission.

Honors and Awards

Suomi received many honors during his scientific career. He was awarded the World Meteorological Organization's IMO [International Meteorological Organization] Prize; the National Medal of Sciences; Finland's first Walter Ahlstrom Prize; the Franklin Medal of the Franklin Institute (Philadelphia); Meisinger, Rossby, Losey, and Brooks awards from the American Meteorological Society (AMS); and awards from NASA and NOAA. On these and many other occasions Suomi humbly acknowledged the help of his colleagues and claimed that others deserved the credit. He was a member of the U.S. Academy of Engineering, the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, the Finnish Academy of Sciences (Helsinki), the Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher, the International Academy of Astronautics (Paris), the American Philosophical Society (Philadelphia), the Academy of Arts and Sciences (Boston), Phi Kappa Phi, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1968 he was elected president of both the American Meteorological Society and the American Geophysical Union's Atmospheric Science Section. He also served on many influential committees, many of them as a director.
Excerpted from EOS, Transactions, American Geophysical Union, v. 76, no. 45, 1995. Posted with AGU permission.

Full list of all of Professor Suomi's Honors and Awards >>


Suomi's accomplishments are significant for their breadth and ingenuity alone, but what makes them truly outstanding is their universal impact on our international society. Usually a significant technical advance affects only a limited area of human activity. Those described here have led to innovations that have affected everyone on the planet. The protection of lives and property has been one outcome. Another has been the savings of energy achieved in the multitude of industries whose operations can be efficiently planned only through anticipation of the weather. Furthermore, in these environmentally conscious times, it has become increasingly important to have the continuous global record offered by the Spin-Scan Cloud Camera to monitor natural and human variations in our atmosphere. Verner Suomi has given us primary tools with which these and many other problems can be understood and turned to human advantage.
By W. Paul Menzel, excerpted from EOS, Transactions, American Geophysical Union, v. 76, no. 45, 1995. Posted with AGU permission.

He is remembered by his colleagues for his unmatchable energy and the power he unleashed through genuinely inspired interest in solving important problems for humanity.

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