Namias, Jerome

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(b. Bridgeport, Connecticut, 19 March 1910; d. La Jolla, California, 10 February 1997)

meteorology, climatology, oceanography, popular science.

With the exception of British colonial meteorologist Gilbert Walker (1868-1958), no long-range forecaster achieved greater prominence and influence during the twentieth century than Jerome Namias. He helped legitimate climate prediction and laid the foundations for its institutionalization as a “Big Science” after 1970. Namias began his career as a leading disciple of the Bergen School of meteorology. In the course of thirty years as head of the U.S. Weather Bureau‘s Extended Forecast Section, his efforts greatly increased the useful range of forecasts in the United States, from less than a week to an entire season. His investigations of air-sea interactions played a vital role in the incorporation of the open ocean and teleconnections into climate forecasting. Like Walker, Namias encouraged environmental scientists to conceive of climate variability in global terms, though he was an outspoken skeptic of the influence that the El Nino phenomenon exercised over North America.

Apostle of the Bergen School Jerome Namias grew up in the industrial city of Fall River, Massachusetts. On his father’s side, he came from a family of Sephardic Jews who fled Spain in the 1490s and then bounced around the Atlantic World. His father, Joseph, immigrated to the United States and eventually provided optometry services to New England textile factory workers. Jerome became a weather enthusiast in high school, but a series of personal problems almost prevented him from becoming a professional of any sort. When his father fell ill, Jerome turned down a four-year scholarship to Wesleyan University in order to stay home and support his family. One year after finishing high school, Jerome contracted tuberculosis, but he made the most out of his long convalescence: he took a series of correspondence courses, including a college-level meteorology course from American Meteorological Society (AMS) founder Charles F. Brooks, a dedicated supporter of amateur involvement in atmospheric science. This course revived Jerome’s interest in the weather, and he began searching for employment by writing letters to prominent meteorologists, just as the United States plunged into the Great Depression.

His boldness paid off. H. H. Clayton hired Namias to move to Washington, D.C., to compile data for the Smithsonian’s World Weather Records, an important organ for the worldwide diffusion of global weather observations. Namias also assisted Clayton with the use of solar observations to predict long-range weather changes. Always the autodidact, Namias struggled through the publications of the Bergen School of meteorology on his own time. As Robert Marc Friedman has shown (1989), this classic research school founded by Norwegian geophysicist Vilhelm Bjerknes used hydrodynamic concepts such as the polar front to revolutionize mid-latitude forecasting after World War I. Namias wrote a letter to Bjerknes’s Swedish disciple Carl-Gustaf Rossby at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) “politely questioning” two statements in Rossby’s monograph Thermodynamics Applied to Air-Mass Analysis (1932). Rossby arranged for this promising recruit to take graduate coursework at MIT in meteorology, even though Namias lacked an undergraduate degree. Rossby apprenticed Namias to German scientist Karl Lange, MIT’s specialist on aerological soundings. Namias used upper-air observations of the passage of cold fronts through the Boston area to publish his first two scientific monographs in 1934. That same year, Namias followed in the footsteps of another Rossby disciple, Horace Byers, by taking a short-lived position as an airline forecaster for Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA). After losing this job to Depression-era cutbacks, Namias spent a few months seeking an undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan before again falling ill. In his autobiography, Namias expressed amazement that he had achieved so much as a scientist with so little formal education.

An infusion of federal funds to study the dust bowl drought enabled Rossby to bring Namias back to MIT as his full-time research assistant in 1936. This sparked a lifelong interest in climate anomalies. Following Bergen School orthodoxy, Namias rejected statistical, climatological approaches to long-range forecasting favored by Walker and Clayton, and instead embraced “qualitative physical reasoning” and the analysis of synoptic maps. Namias eventually developed his own, highly subjective approach to atmospheric problems, emphasizing empirical case studies of large-scale developments. As Richard Somerville explains (2003), Namias became a “grand master” of these techniques and stuck with them, through thick and thin, while the rest of the profession embraced numerical modeling.

Namias achieved his first important breakthrough analyzing the thermodynamics associated with the humidity content of interacting air masses. “Isentropic analysis” provided an invaluable tool for predicting precipitation associated with thunderstorms, particularly in summer (1938). Rossby, meanwhile, developed his celebrated theory of long waves in the westerlies. Namias used another new mapping technique, differential analysis, to extrapolate upper-level barometric conditions over the North Pacific and North Atlantic from surface observations. When Rossby saw the initial hemispheric map Namias produced for Christmas Day, 1940, “he got very excited. The long waves were vivid.… He set to work scribbling right on the map to compute the motion of those waves according to his equations.… Those first computations, on the side of the map triggered a whole new chain of thinking in the 1940s,” particularly in extended-range forecasting (quoted in Basu, 1984, p. 200).

Namias played an equally important role spreading these new ideas and techniques. In 1934–1935, under Rossby’s supervision, he wrote a series of articles for the AMS Bulletin that explained the basics of air mass analysis. Namias later compiled these in a textbook widely used by training programs during World War II. After the war, the head of the U.S. Weather Bureau, Francis W. Reichelderfer—another early U.S. convert to the Bergen School—

sent Namias on extended missions to forecasting centers in Scandinavia, the United States, and eventually Australia, New Zealand, and Mexico, to make sure they stayed abreast of new research and mapping techniques. The mass media frequently looked to Namias to explain weather phenomena to the public, both in print and on television. “Thank God for the ‘Jet Stream,’” Namias recalled, because it provided a straightforward way to explain the new ideas emerging from World War II, and soon became a household phrase (“Autobiography,” 1986, p. 20). In these ways, Namias played an important role in the worldwide colonization of meteorological practice by the Bergen School.

The Politics of Long-Range Forecasting In May 1940, Namias moved back to Washington to establish an Extended Forecast Section at the U.S. Weather Bureau that would make operational use of these new ideas. In those days, forecasts more than a couple of days in advance were considered “long-range” and subject to considerable doubt. During World War II, the Extended Forecast Section worked closely with military officers to produce five-day forecasts for Allied forces based on “mean circulation methods.” Namias received a commendation for forecasting a lull in surf conditions that enabled the 8 November 1942 invasion of North Africa.

The abnormal winter of 1949–1950 inspired Namias to shift his focus toward longer-term changes in the weather. As this season unfolded, he tracked the slow, steady progression of the North Pacific anticyclone from a position east of Hawaii to the Yukon. He soon recognized that the location and intensity of this “center of action” determined an abrupt flip-flop of weather conditions during late winter. He and his longtime collaborator Phil Clapp also directed their attention to the so-called index cycle, a quasi-periodic shift of four-to-six-week duration in the prevailing westerlies during winter. By 1953, they figured out how to relate this cycle to centers of action and could produce operational thirty-day forecasts. These discoveries were also important for debunking Irving Lang-muir’s claim that his cloud-seeding experiments were responsible for producing weekly weather cycles in the eastern United States.

Too much success could have drastic political consequences. During the mid-1950s, Namias and his collaborators developed a technique using wind patterns associated with the Bermuda high to locate regions of particular hurricane vulnerability. Namias’s thirty-day hurricane advisory for June 1957 turned out to be devastatingly correct. Hurricane Audrey, a category four storm, struck the Gulf Coast and killed 390 people in the exact region Namias had identified as most vulnerable. Two Gulf State senators with influence over Weather Bureau appropriations put a stop to these advisories so they would not have a negative impact on coastal tourism.

This blow to Namias’s ambitions did not cause him to shy away from forecasts of even longer range. In 1968, after a decade of experimentation, the Extended Forecast Division initiated ninety-day forecasts driven by Namias’s new insights into the role that air-sea interactions and atmospheric teleconnections played in sustaining climate anomalies. Despite poor initial results, Namias’s seasonal advisories acquired significant political influence. They reputedly affected the Nixon and Ford administrations’ decisions in favor of exporting grain to the Soviet Union and against fuel rationing during the Arab oil embargo. Namias “became the guru of long-range forecasting” when a rare “synergy” of large-scale conditions enabled him to forecast the exceptionally cold, snowy winter of 1976–1977 in the eastern United States. The press gave him front-page coverage when he cautiously (and accurately) predicted a break in the extended drought affecting the Far West during the winter of 1977–1978. During this period, Namias also became one of the first scientists to describe even longer-term climate “regimes” lasting up to a decade.

Which Center of Action? In 1957–1958, strange weather affected almost the entire Pacific Basin. Oceanographer John Isaacs—another prominent scientist of Namias’s generation with little formal training—organized an interdisciplinary symposium at Rancho Santa Fe, California, in June 1958 to discuss this “extraordinary year.” He invited Namias to fly to Southern California to explain mid-latitude atmospheric anomalies. Afterward, Namias confided to Isaacs, “I have a feeling that this meeting will usher in a new era of concentrated thought and development relating to climate anomalies in the ocean and atmosphere” (Cushman, 2004, p. 140). Namias made this a self-fulfilling prophecy. He focused the rest of his career on air-sea interactions and worked more and more closely with marine scientists on the Pacific Coast. Three life-changing incidents accelerated this shift: the death of his close friend and collaborator Harry Wexler in 1962 from a heart attack, followed by his own heart attack and a serious auto accident in 1963–1964. He delayed leaving U.S. Weather Bureau headquarters completely until 1971, however, so he could support the artistic career of his wife (and Wexler’s sister-in-law) Edith Paipert.

Namias relished leaving Washington’s bureaucratic wrangling for an academic post at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, a position he held from 1968 until he suffered a career-ending stroke in 1989. Yet he could not leave politics behind. Scientists now recognize 1957–1958 as marking the beginning of modern El Niño research in the United States, but this was not preordained. During the late 1960s, Namias became deeply engaged in a debate regarding the “source area of anomalies” in the Pacific Basin. He was predisposed to see the North Pacific as the most important center of action affecting downstream weather patterns in the United States. After all, he had spent three decades studying the behavior of mid-latitude westerlies and plotting thousands of polar projection maps. (These maps graphically pushed the tropics to the margins of his worldview.) Jacob Bjerknes, the son of Vilhelm and a major contributor to polar front theory, became convinced during the 1950s that tropical processes drove climate variation in the Pacific Basin. During the 1960s, he published three fundamental papers linking the El Niño phenomenon to these changes. Their remarkably friendly debate came to a head during the planning stages of what became known as the North Pacific Experiment (NORPAX). Namias used his prestige in Washington to ensure that the North Pacific garnered most of the attention from this classic Big Science project. Scientists later criticized Namias for his “tropical skepticism” when it became clear that Bjerknes had been basically correct. That said, Namias gave far more credence to tropical teleconnections than most scientists from this era. In a 1976 article inspired by the 1972–1973 El Niño event—one of the first studies that also incorporated an analysis of the “inverse El Niño” (now known as La Niña)—he found unambiguous “evidence for a contemporary relationship between Northern Hemisphere westerlies and variations in equatorial [sea-surface temperatures].” Nevertheless, he found it “almost impossible to prove cause and effect” and favored the explanation that subtropical wind anomalies caused this variation (Namias, 1976, pp. 130, 134). After the 1982–1983 “super Niño” turned this phenomenon into an international obsession, Namias contributed some wise words of prudence, still worth hearing: “Unfortunately, El Niños, like everything else, including human beings, all vary and no two are exactly alike.” Even though they possessed “enough common characteristics to be tantalizing,” he doubted whether they could provide a clear guide to seasonal forecasting, at least in North America (Namias, 1985, p. 173).

In the short term, tropical skepticism undoubtedly influenced U.S. government patronage for climate research and almost nipped El Niño studies in the bud. During an earlier era, the Bergen School’s triumph had an even broader, negative impact on climatological research. Namias’s caution and dedication to a set of tried-and-true techniques underpinned his success and prestige as a long-range forecaster. Over the long term, his ability to deliver usable long-range forecasts helped attract enormous institutional support for climate research, first at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, then at national and international levels. Only an apostle of the Bergen School— with a little prodding from El Niño—could have accomplished so much to legitimate climate forecasting during the postwar era.


Papers, 1932–1990. (MC 20) Archives of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego. With a guide by Dawnelle Ricciardi.


Subsidence within the Atmosphere. Harvard Meteorological Studies, no. 2. Cambridge, MA: Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory of Harvard University, 1934.

With C.-G. Rossby. Structure of a Wedge of Continental Polar Air Determined from Aerological Observations. Meteorological Course, Professional Notes, no. 6. Cambridge, MA:

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1934. “Thunderstorm Forecasting with the Aid of Isentropic Charts.”

Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 19, no. 1 (1938): 1–14.

An Introduction to the Study of Air Mass and Isentropic Analysis.

5th ed. Milton, MA: American Meteorological Society, 1940. Originally published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (1934–1935).

Extended Forecasting by Mean Circulation Methods. Rev. ed.

Washington, DC: U.S. Weather Bureau, 1947. Originally published as a confidential wartime document in 1943.

“The Index Cycle and Its Role in the General Circulation.”

Journal of Meteorology 7, no. 2 (1950): 130–139.

“The Jet Stream.” Scientific American (October 1952): 26–31.

Example of science popularization.

Thirty-Day Forecasting: A Review of a Ten-Year Experiment.

Meteorological Monographs, vol. 2, no. 6. Boston: American Meteorological Society, 1953.

“Seasonal Fluctuations in Vulnerability to Tropical Cyclones in and off New England.” Monthly Weather Review 83, no. 8 (1955): 155–162.

“Recent Seasonal Interactions between North Pacific Waters and the Overlying Atmospheric Circulation.” Journal of Geophysical Research 64 (1959): 631–646. His first major study of air-sea interactions.

“A Five-Year Experiment in the Preparation of Seasonal Outlooks.” Monthly Weather Review 92, no. 10 (1964):

449–464. On 90-day forecasts.

“Long-Range Weather Forecasting: History, Current Status, and Outlook.” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 49, no. 5 (1968): 438–470. Invaluable historical overview.

“Some Statistical and Synoptic Characteristics Associated with El Niño.” Journal of Physical Oceanography 6, no. 2 (1976): 130–138. A rare statistical study.

With Robert R. Dickson. “North American Influences on the Circulation and Climate of the North Atlantic Sector.”

Monthly Weather Review 104, no. 10 (1976): 1255–1265. Introduces concept of decadal climate regimes.

“Multiple Causes of the North American Abnormal Winter, 1976–77.” Monthly Weather Review 106, no. 3 (1978): 279–295.

With Daniel R. Cayan. “El Niño: Implications for Forecasting.”

Oceanus 27, no. 2 (1984): 41–47.

“Remarks on the Potential for Long-Range Forecasting.” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 66, no. 2 (1985): 165–173.

“Autobiography.” In Namias Symposium, edited by John O.

Roads. Scripps Institution of Oceanography Reference Series, 86-17. La Jolla, CA: Scripps Institution of Oceanography, 1986. Essential source; includes comprehensive bibliography and ten articles evaluating Namias’s contributions to specific scientific problems.

“Summer Earthquakes in Southern California Related to Pressure Patterns at Sea Level and Aloft.” Journal of Geophysical Research 94 (1989): 17671–17679. Example of Namias’s occasional willingness to study risky topics.


Basu, Janet Else. “The Making of a Scientist: Jerome Namias, Pioneering the Science of Forecasting.” Weatherwise 37, no. 4 (1984): 190–194, 199–201.

“The Bulletin Interviews: Dr. Jerome Namias.” WMO Bulletin 37, no. 3 (July 1988): 157–169.

Cushman, Gregory T. “Choosing between Centers of Action:

Instrument Buoys, El Niño, and Scientific Internationalism in the Pacific, 1957–1982.” In The Machine in Neptune’s Garden: Historical Perspectives on Technology and the Marine Environment, edited by Helen M. Rozwadowski and David

K. van Keuren, 133–182. Sagamore Beach, MA: Science History Publications, 2004.

_____. “The Struggle over Airways in the Americas, 1919–1945: Atmospheric Science, Aviation Technology, and Neocolonialism.” In Intimate Universality: Local and Global Themes in Weather and Climate History, edited by James R. Fleming, Vladimir Jankovic, and Deborah Coen, 175–222. Sagamore Beach, MA: Science History Publications, 2006.

Friedman, Robert Marc. Appropriating the Weather: Vilhelm Bjerknes and the Construction of a Modern Meteorology. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Roads, John O. “Jerome Namias, March 19, 1910–February 10, 1997.” Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences 76 (1999): 243–267.

Somerville, Richard C. J. “Climate and Atmospheric Science at Scripps: The Legacy of Jerome Namias.” Oceanography 16, no. 3 (2003): 93–97.

Gregory T. Cushman