Gerald R. North


On his book The Rise of Climate Science: A Memoir

Cover Interview of October 13, 2020

In a nutshell

The Rise of Climate Science is about my life and its parallel with the rise of climate science. The book starts with my early life as an only child in Knoxville with my sailor father in the Pacific and my mom at home worried. I was a frail child, awkward, insecure, skinny, and spoiled by a brooding mom—polio was raging as well.

I attended the University of Tennessee in my hometown. To pay my way I became a co-op student at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the chemistry division dealing with uranium solutions at high temperatures. Lack of lab skills drove me to physics and math. Wonderful mentors at ORNL sent me off to Wisconsin for a PhD in high energy theoretical physics, which I completed in 1966.

After a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania and tenure at a midwestern branch campus, I took a life changing sabbatical year (1974-75) at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder where I started a new career as a climate scientist when the field was about to explode. In 1978 I moved to a research scientist position at the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center as a small group leader in climate science.

I served on five extended visits (1976-85) to the USSR doing research and as part of delegations sharing information and warming relations with Soviet Scientists. At NASA I was lead scientist in proposing and conducting feasibility studies for a satellite program called the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, which turned into a partnership with Japan. In promoting the mission, I made presentations at many sites around the world. TRMM was launched in 1997 and orbited successfully for 17 years. The data were used in the improvement of climate models and other applications. While at Goddard Space Flight Center my group worked in several areas of climate research including the creation of climate models for the study of ancient climates of Earth, predictability and other estimation procedures. Aside from the satellite my most influential work was on the error analysis of data systems.

I moved to Texas A&M University in atmospheric sciences in 1986, where I have worked on mathematical and statistical issues in climate science ever since. I taught classes and mentored graduate students at all levels. As department head, 1995-2003, I helped build a strong program in atmospheric sciences at A&M.

The book recounts these experiences through stories of awe, family, friends, failures, successes, discoveries, forks in the road, good luck and bad. I also visited most of the important hot spots of climate science. I try to tell what it is like to do this kind of work and what it is like in those labs and countries. In chairing committees and serving on boards I learned how big institutions work. I have lots to say about trends in science and academia. I relate and evaluate the history of climate science from my viewpoint from its origins to its establishment as a mature science and the compelling case that anthropogenic climate change is real and that it has been driven by human activities.