Featured Expert: David Bromwich

David Bromwich

David Bromwich

Professor, Atmospheric Sciences Program, Department of Geography

Predicting the Planet’s Weather and Climate

David Bromwich, chief of the Polar Meteorology Group at Ohio State’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, laughs when he remembers his first career move: forecasting weather for the Australian Weather Bureau.

Well, he tried.

“I realized I wasn’t very good at it,” says Bromwich. “Your forecasts get battered every time you make one, and I thought it would be better to study why things went wrong.”

Now, Bromwich spends a lot of time developing numerical weather and climate models, but he also focuses on studying the gigantic ice sheet that dominates West Antarctica, a region, along with Greenland, that Bromwich calls “one of the more sensitive areas of the planet.” The territory has been trending warmer for a long period, and disintegrating ice shelves are presenting definitive evidence of these dramatic changes. That activity could have significant ramifications elsewhere.

“The most direct link to these remote parts of the world to where we are is sea level,” explains Bromwich, an Ohio State atmospheric sciences professor. “Over a broad scale, the sea level seems to be going up quite rapidly at the present time. It looks like a big contributor to this is the ice sheet melt from Greenland and west Antarctica.”

Bromwich, who was born in the UK and grew up in Australia, earned an undergraduate degree in physics and astronomy at the University of Sydney, a master’s degree in meteorology at the University of Melbourne and an “applied” diploma of meteorology from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

After his stint in weather forecasting, Bromwich followed his adventurous spirit to East Antarctica for a yearlong Australian Antarctic Expedition.

“That was quite an eye-opening experience for me,” Bromwich recalls. “I was just in my early 20s when that happened, and it stimulated me to want to do research in this area.”

In 1975, Bromwich immigrated to the United States, where he earned a doctorate in meteorology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He came to Ohio State in 1979, attracted by the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center.

“I was a soft-money scientist for a long time, which meant I raised almost all of my salary from research grants,” Bromwich recalls. “That’s a rough-and-tumble life for anybody, but luckily I had a wife who was working, and that provided stability for our family.”

In 1998, Ohio State’s Department of Geography offered him a faculty position, where he continues to teach atmospheric science when he’s not knee-deep in research.

National Science Foundation and NASA grants have funded much of Bromwich’s work. He has collaborators not only on campus but also around the world because much of his work is nationally or internationally related.

“I interact a lot with people in Colorado and Wyoming, for example,” Bromwich says. “They know a lot about wind energy out there. You can learn about the characteristics of the winds, short and long term, and smaller scale details that can be taken advantage of.”

Much of his work today focuses on changes in the world’s climate.

“Sometimes it’s very hard to see climate change because there is lots and lots of variability. Climate systems are very complex things,” Bromwich says. “I’m interested in understanding how and why that is happening and how much is natural and how much is human induced.”

The Byrd group has “probably done more than most groups around the world” on developing and improving numerical climate models at higher latitudes, Bromwich says.

“We’ve made the polar modifications of these models available,” he says. “There are an enormous number of users around the world, including for commercial applications.”

In fact, Bromwich’s work on weather modeling was instrumental in saving a life.

He and his colleagues had worked on developing AMPS — the Antarctic Mesoscale Prediction System — a real-time, numerical weather prediction system methodology that supports the U.S. Antarctic program and international science efforts in the region. AMPS was implemented in October 2000.

Just six months later, rescuers were called to evacuate an ailing physician from the South Pole, where temperatures were sinking below minus 60 C (minus 76 F) and a bitter wind chill neared minus 100 C (minus 148 F). Ohio doctor Ronald Shemenski had suffered a gall bladder attack and pancreatitis at the U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

AMPS helped meteorologists and pilots identify a window of opportunity for the rescue flight, a rare occurrence in the harsh polar climate that is typical between late February and November.

“They flew a very small plane thousands of miles across nothing to land at the South Pole to pick him up and go home again,” Bromwich says. “You don’t fly long-range aircraft into a very remote area unless you have fairly high confidence that the conditions will be reasonable when you get there. It was an outstanding event.”

The 2001 Shemenski rescue was the third of a doctor from Antarctica within a two-year period; his evacuation was preceded by that of Robert Thompson, who suffered a back injury in 2000, and Jerri Nielsen, who in 1999 self-diagnosed a cancerous breast tumor.

The rescues triggered the notion for providing better forecasts of the hazardous weather conditions common at the South Pole.

“We got this bright idea that maybe we can do something better with weather forecasting down there,” Bromwich says. “We started off with a simple forecasting system that generated interest at the NSF, and we teamed up with the National Center for Atmospheric Research.”

That system certainly has the support of countless Ohio State University researchers, too.

“There are a lot of people from Ohio State that go to Antarctica every year,” Bromwich says, “and the safety and reliability with which those planes can get in has a lot to do with the weather.”

On the web: David Bromwich: http://geography.osu.edu/people/bromwich.1

Polar Meteorology Group at Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center: http://polarmet.osu.edu/

Editor’s Note: Watch David Bromwich’s 2013 TEDxColumbus talk on global warming: http://tedxcolumbus.com/speakers-performers/2013-out-there/david-bromwich/.