Suomi, Verner Edward

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(b. Eveleth, Minnesota, 6 December 1915; d. Madison, Wisconsin, 30 July 1995)

satellite meteorology, instrumentation and data processing, heat budget measurements.

Suomi is considered one of the founding fathers of satellite meteorology. His innovations in scientific instrumentation, data processing, and analysis have substantially improved scientists’ understanding of weather and climate. Suomi’s professional career combined inventiveness with a keen ability to mobilize human and financial resources in support of his ideas and projects.

Education and Early Career Suomi’s parents were of Scandinavian origin. His father was a carpenter from Turku, Finland, and his mother hailed from the Swedish-speaking Åland Islands in the Baltic Sea, then part of the Grand Duchy of Finland. Each emigrated separately to the United States in 1902 where they met, married, and raised a large family with seven children. His parents valued the importance of education as a means for social mobility, thus their attention to the education of Verner and his siblings. Suomi was a good student in high school with a keen interest in science and engineering. He attended Winona State Teachers College, graduating in the summer of 1938, and subsequently worked for several years as a high school teacher. In the summer of 1940 he attended a civilian pilot training program sponsored by the Civil Aviation Authority. There he first encountered the field of meteorology through a practical textbook, Meteorology for Pilots, by Benarthur Castle Haynes.

In 1941, Suomi responded to an announcement he heard on the radio for a course in meteorology for military cadets at the University of Chicago under the supervision of Professor Carl-Gustaf Rossby. While studying to be a weather officer as a civilian cadet, Suomi worked in the laboratory of the Department of Meteorology. During the war, the circulation of meteorological information was forbidden; thus the research team in Chicago had developed a forecasting technique based largely on the thermal wind equation. The radiosonde (a miniature instrument for measurement and transmission) was used for the collection of the appropriate data but often the balloons disappeared and were retrieved and returned to the university in a damaged condition by the public. The role of the laboratory was to repair them and put them in use again. This experience provided Suomi with an initial experience in meteorological research and instrumentation practices that shaped the rest of his professional career.

That year Suomi married Paula Meyer whom he had met in college. The couple raised three children.

Suomi remained in Chicago after the end of the six-month course, at first as an instructor for other cadets and later in charge of the facility where they launched radiosondes. He soon involved himself in research activities, focusing his attention on the development of instruments that would improve single-station forecasts. He was able to raise funds to support a small research and development group at Chicago.

Suomi’s group designed and constructed lightweight radiosonde recorders for use in mobile field stations, and an automatic dew-point recorder for use on the ground or with weather balloons. A high-altitude version of the dew-point device recorded the first measurements of moisture from the stratosphere. His team also developed a sonic anemometer that responded quickly to changes in the wind. These instruments made it possible to collect information on variations in atmospheric conditions, enhancing scientists’ knowledge of boundary-layer processes. Suomi also designed and constructed a radiation balance meter (or net radiometer) in collaboration with Matti Franssila, later director general of the Finnish Meteorological Institute.

In 1947 Rossby left Chicago in order to start the International Meteorological Institute at Stockholm University. One year later Suomi also left Chicago, and joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin, where Reid A. Bryson had established a new Department of Meteorology. There he met Heinz Lettau, who shared a common interest in boundary-layer studies. Suomi served as chair of the Wisconsin Department of Meteorology beginning in 1950 and received his PhD from the University of Chicago in 1953. For his doctoral thesis, he used radiometers to measure the heat budget of a Wisconsin cornfield.

Suomi was a keen supporter of an empirical approach in meteorological research. His scientific methodology emphasized the importance of short-range weather predictions. He avoided climate predictions and theories about the future of Earth’s climate, stressing the importance of meteorological observations and accurate measurements in weather forecasting. His approach was in contrast to that of his colleague Bryson, who developed theories about the past and future of climate change. Suomi considered Bryson’s pattern of scientific activity to be scientifically inappropriate. Their different approaches and dispute were characteristic of two different scientific styles in modern meteorology.

Pioneering Instruments and Observations The story of Earth-orbiting satellites dates to 1952 when the International Council of Scientific Unions began planning for an International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1957–1958 and later called for artificial satellites to be launched during the IGY for scientific purposes. Suomi was convinced he could measure the heat budget of Earth using satellites. He received support and technical advice from Lewis Kaplan, chair of the U.S. National Committee (USNC) for the IGY, Harry Wexler, director of research at the U.S. Weather Bureau and chief scientist of the USNC/IGY Antarctic Programs, and James Van Allen, an expert in rocket and satellite instrumentation. Van Allen’s practical expertise was important in Suomi’s initial steps in satellite meteorological instrumentation. At that moment, the issue at stake for Suomi was to acquire information and expertise relevant to the instruments’ design and their performance under conditions of violent shocks.

In collaboration with Van Allen, Suomi designed a sensor for measuring the heat-budget of Earth to fly in Project Vanguard in 1957. According to his description, the early radiation budget meter

was really a very simple concept: two small spheres on the end of antennae, one white and the other black. The white sphere would not be too responsive to any but terrestrial infra-red radiation; the black one would absorb direct solar radiation, solar radiation reflected from the Earth and the Earth’s own infra-red emissions. (1987 interview, p. 256)

The launch failed, however, and Suomi had to wait almost two years for another attempt. Explorer 7, launched on 13 October 1959, carried a number of instruments including Suomi’s improved flat-plate radiometer that took the first Earth radiation measurements from space and initiated the era of satellite studies of the climate. Using both satellite observations of the Earth’s heat balance and atmospheric cooling rates measured by net flux radiosondes, Suomi established the important role played by clouds in absorbing radiated solar energy. His observations demonstrated that Earth’s energy budget varies markedly due to the effect of clouds, the surface albedo, and other absorbing constituents. Another result was the discovery that Earth was darker than had been believed; less solar energy was reflected to space than had assumed to be the case. In general, Suomi’s research provided important information about the fluctuation of the global energy budget and the factors that influenced it.

In 1965, with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and in collaboration with electrical engineering professor Robert Parent, Suomi founded the Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and assembled a talented team of researchers to work there. He remained director there until his retirement in 1988. The initiative transformed the University of Wisconsin into a major center of atmospheric research and instrument development for satellites and spacecraft. Also in the 1960s he co-founded the Global Atmospheric Research Program (GARP), which led to the GARP Atlantic Tropical Experiment and FGGE (global weather experiment). In 1980 he established, jointly with the National Oceanic

& Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies.

Spin-Scan Camera Suomi worked closely with NASA, so when he learned that the American space agency was starting work on an Applications Technology Satellite (ATS), a project for the first spacecraft into geostationary orbit, he proposed the establishment of a camera on board ATS 1. His initiative was developed in collaboration with Robert J. Parent. In 1964 in the initial eight-page proposal the scientists argued that

The object of this experiment is to continuously monitor the weather motions over a large fraction of the earth’s surface. Even though near-earth weather satellites have provided an impressive array of visible and infrared observations of the earth’s weather on a nearly operational basis, the synchronous satellite affords another opportunity to gain a better understanding of the global weather circulation, the key to better weather prediction. (quoted in Suomi and Krauss, 1978, p. 6)

Their proposal was the starting point of the spin-scan camera and the creation of a whole system that facilitated weather and atmospheric monitoring on a global scale. The initial device was a black-and-white camera, or more accurately a photometer, “consisting of a telescope and a photomultiplier light detector coupled with a precision latitude step mechanism which varies elevation angle by +7.5° .” (Suomi and Krauss, 1978, p. 8). The camera was mounted on NASA’s Applications Technology Satellite ATS 1, a spin-stabilized vehicle launched into geostationary orbit in December 1966. For Suomi the spin-scan idea was suddenly simple: “the weather moves, not the satellite” (1989 interview, p. 64).

Comprising a spin-stabilized vehicle, a spin scan camera, a data transmission link, and the image display system, the spin-scan system provided images of the weather systems as they developed, which was of prime importance for meteorologists, enabling them to identify and study significant cloud patterns. In addition, when used in conjunction with ground and tropospheric balloon observations, the spin-scan system contributed to quantitative measurements of the dynamics of air motion, cloud heights, and the amount of atmospheric pollution.

In 1967 Suomi’s Multicolor Spin-Scan Cloud Camera (MSSCC) flew on ATS 3. The color camera was capable of identifying high and low clouds and discriminating between clouds and surface features. In 1971 Suomi proposed the third generation of spin-scan cameras, the Visible and Infrared Spin Scan Radiometer (VISSR), which could provide infrared images at night, profile the atmosphere’s temperature and water vapor, and measure the effective temperatures of cloud tops to provide better and more rapid discrimination of altitude differences. The spin-scan camera was improved yet another time in order to profile the atmosphere’s temperature with the VISSR Atmospheric Sounder (VAS) launched in 1980 aboard GOES 4.

Suomi was also involved in projects to study the atmospheres of other planets. He was on the imaging science team for the Mariner, Pioneer, and Voyager missions and was involved in interpreting images of Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus.

McIDAS: Data Processing and Analysis Satellite instruments generate a massive quantity of images and data. To make sense of all this, or as Suomi put it, to try “to get a drink from a fire hydrant” (quoted in Gregory and Johnson, 1996, p. 252), members of the SSEC collaborated on systems that would process the data, often in real time, and provide end users with useful visual and analytic tools. Their innovations substantially influenced atmospheric research, television broadcast meteorology, and public perceptions of the weather.

Under Verner Suomi’s supervision, Fritz Hasler, one of his PhD students, managed to measure cloud motion using a laborious technique that was not automated (Lazzara et al., 1999, p. 272). Further improvements and innovations were implemented in the system under Suomi’s guidance. He knew that the problem was complex and that engineering and computing expertise were necessary. The project was characterized by interdisciplinary approaches, teamwork ethos, but also a competitive culture. The latter was established mainly through Suomi’s initiative in order to guarantee the best technoscientific results. It was Suomi’s idea to establish internal competition between engineers of SSEC who tried to develop computer techniques to measure cloud motions (Lazzara et al., 1999, p. 272).

Finally, the success of Eric Smith and Dennis Phillips in developing a computer-based system was what Suomi needed to persuade NASA and NOAA to fund the research for the further development and improvement of the system. The outcome of the research activities was WINDCO, the system for the demonstration of winds processing that used the instant replay analog disk, a recent innovation in television industry. By April 1972, the prototype system was ready for a demonstration to officials from NOAA, NASA, and NSF. The demonstration was successful and Suomi’s research group got funding and support for the continuation of the research and the improvement of the system.

WINDCO’s main shortcoming, however, was that it could not process and compare information from a variety of sources (Lazzara et al., 1999, p. 273). Suomi’s answer to this problem was McIDAS (Man-computer Interactive Data Access System), developed at SSEC by an interdisciplinary team of electronics and computer engineers and programmers with support from NSF, NOAA, NASA, and the Department of Defense. Running on a minicomputer with two video displays, McIDAS was able to accept data from a variety of sources, process it, and make intercomparisons. It provided an important interface between the user, the computer, the databases, and ultimately, real-time sensors, including satellite-based instruments, ground-based radar, and conventional and automated meteorological stations. By the end of 1973 the system was being used in daily television weather broadcasts.

A second generation of McIDAS, employing a network of microcomputers, was used for both research and operational purposes in support of data collected during the First GARP Global Experiment (FGGE) in 1978. By the mid-1980s a more accessible and user-friendly system, McIDAS III, was running on personal computers, providing each user with the ability to analyze and distribute meteorological information. McIDAS was widely used by the National Storm Prediction Center, the National Weather Service, the National Transportation Safety Board, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and many other government agencies. The system was also used in meteorological centers in Spain, Australia and Japan as well as in private companies (Suomi et al., 1983, 778).

Honors and Attributes Suomi taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the Departments of Meteorology and Soil Science and the Institute for Environmental Studies. In 1977 he was honored by the University of Wisconsin-Madison as the Harry Wexler professor in meteorology. Even after his retirement he remained active in teaching and research.

Scientists and engineers who studied and worked with Suomi acknowledged that his teaching ability was outstanding. Russell Hall remarked that “he was first and foremost a teacher, able to explain difficult concepts clearly and without condescension. The list of his former students reads like a “Who’s Who” of the younger generation of meteorologists” (Fox et al., 1998, p. 16). In his problem-solving strategies, Suomi followed an interdisciplinary approach, collaborating with engineers and computer scientists.

Suomi actively participated in several advisory committees for a variety of scientific and policy institutions including the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Centre for Atmospheric Research, and the National Science Foundation. He also served as president of the American Meteorological Society (1967) and two years later in 1969 he chaired the U.S. Joint Organizing Committee for the Global Atmospheric Research Program.

Highlights of Suomi’s many honors include the 1961 Meisinger Award, the 1968 Carl-Gustaf Rossby Award, and the 1980 Charles Franklin Brooks Award from the American Meteorological Society, as well as election to the U.S. National Academy of Engineering in 1966, the 1971 Robert M. Losey Award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the 1977 National Medal of Science, and the 1984 Franklin Medal. As well as American scientific institutions, Suomi’s contribution in satellite meteorology and generally in science and engineering was acknowledged by European and international institutions. The list of awards from the latter comprised, among others, his election as a foreign member to the Finnish Academy of Sciences (1965), the Deutsch Akademie der Naturforscher (1970) and the International Academy of Astronautics (1975) in France, as well as the 1990 first Walter Ahlstrom Prize of Finland, and the 1993 International Meteorological Organization Prize.


Suomi’s papers (articles, reports, patent specifications, etc.) and generally published and unpublished materials relating to Suomi’s life and career can be found in the Schwerdtfeger Library at the SSEC, University of Wisconsin–Madison. A comprehensive list of Suomi’s publications and honors appears in Fox et al., cited below.


“Energy Budget Studies at the Earths Surface and Development of the Sonic Anemometer for Power Spectrum Analysis.”University of isconsin–Department of Meteorology, 1957. Included in the holdings of the Schwerdtfeger Library (see above).

“Observing the Atmosphere—A Challenge.” Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers 50, no. 11 (1962): 2192–2197.

Initial Proposal to NASA for an ATS Technological Experiment. 1964. NASA ATS proposals. Dept. of Meteorology, and Dept. of Electrical Engineering, UW–Madison. 4 pages, with figures, included in the holdings of the Schwerdtfeger Library (see above).

A Proposal to NASA for Color Spin Scan Camera for ATS-C. 1966. NASA ATS proposals. 12 pages, with figures and appendixes. Included in the holdings of the Schwerdtfeger Library (see above).

Proposal to NASA for a Comprehensive Research Program in Space Applications for Meteorology Using Satellites. 1968. NASA science proposals. 10 pages. Included in the holdings of the Schwerdtfeger Library (see above).

With Thomas H. Vonder Haar. “Geosynchronous Meteorological Satellite.” Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets6, no. 3 (1969): 342–344.

With Thomas H. Vonder Haar. “Satellite Observations of the Earth’s Radiation Budget.” Science163 (1969): 667–669.

With Thomas Vonder Haar, Robert J. Krauss, and Alfred J. Stamm. “Possibilities for Sounding the Atmosphere from a Geosynchronous Spacecraft.” Space Research Activities in the German Democratic Republic11 (1971): 609–617.

With Tom Gehrels and Robert J. Krauss. “The Capabilities of the Spin-Scan Imaging Technique.” Space Research Activities in the German Democratic Republic12 (1972): 1765–1769.

“Atmospheric Research for the Nation’s Energy Program.” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society56 (1975): 1060–1068.

“Cloud motions on Venus.” In Conference on the Atmosphere of Venus. New York: National Aeronautic and Space Administration, 1975.

“Man-Computer Interactive Data Access System (McIDAS): Continued Development of McIDAS and Operation in the GARP Atlantic Tropical Experiment.” Final report Contract NAS5–23296 for period August 1973 to December 1974. 1975. Included in the holdings of the Schwerdtfeger Library (see above).

With David D. Houghton. “Information Content of Satellite Images.” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society59 (1978): 1614–1617.

With Robert J. Krauss, “The Spin Scan Camera System: Geostationary Meteorological Satellite Workhorse for a Decade.” Optical Engineering17, no. 1 (1978): 6–13.

With Robert J. Fox, Sanjay S. Limaye, and William L. Smith. “McIDAS III: A Modern Interactive Data Access and Analysis System.” Journal of Climate and Applied Meteorology22, no. 5 (May 1983): 766–778.

“The Bulletin Interviews: Professor V.E. Suomi.” Interview conducted by Hessam Taba. WMO Bulletin 36, no. 4 (October 1987): 253–263.

“Interview: Verner Suomi.” Interview conducted by Paul Bagne. Omni, (July 1989): 60–67, 94.

Oral history interviews with Verner Suomi, conducted by Gisella Kutzbach (with Bill Smith, Don Johnson, and Dave Johnson), 20 March, 20 April, and 12 May 1994. Tape Recorded Interview Project, American Meteorological Society/University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. Finding aid available from


Broad, J. William, “A 30-Year Feud Divides Experts on Meteorology.” New York Times, 24 October 1989: C1, C6.

Fox, Robert J., Terri Gregory, Russell Hall, et al., eds. Verner E. Suomi 1916–1995: A Man for All Seasons. SSEC Publication No. 98.03.SI. Madison: University of Wisconsin–Madison, Space Science and Engineering Center, 1998. Available from

Gregory, Terri. “Verner Edward Suomi (6 December 1915–30 July 1995).” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society142, no. 3 (September 1998): 500–509.

———, Robert Fox, and William Smith. “Verner Edward Suomi (1915–1995).” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 76 (1995): 1836–1837.

Gregory, Terri, and Donald R. Johnson. “Verner Edward Suomi (1915–1995).” In Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering of the United States of America, vol. 8. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1996.

Haynes, Benarthur Castle. Meteorology for Pilots. Civil Aeronautics Administration, Civil Aeronautics Bulletin, no. 25. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1940.

Hill, Janice. Weather from Above: America’s Meteorological Satellites. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

Lazzara, A. Mathew, et al. “The Man-Computer Interactive Data Access System: 25 Years of Interactive Processing.” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 80 (1999): 271–284.

Menzel, Paul. “Verner Suomi (1915–1995).” EOS 76, no. 45 (7 November 1995: 454–455.

Purdom, James F. W., and W. Paul Menzel. “Evolution of Satellite Observations in the United States and Their Use in Meteorology.” In Historical Essays on Meteorology, 1919–1995: The Diamond Anniversary History Volume of the American Meteorological Society, edited by James R. Fleming. Boston: American Meteorological Society, 1996.

Stout, David. “Verner E. Suomi, 79, Pioneer in Weather Forecasting, Dies.” New York Times, 1 August 1995.

Williamson, Mark. “‘And Now the Weather’: The Early Development of the Meteorological Satellite.” Transactions: Newcomen Society for the Study of the History of Engineering and Technology 66 (1994–1995): 53–75.

Efstathios Arapostathis