From farmer and country school teacher to NWS Scientist Emeritus

Date Posted: May 30, 2012

As a young man in 1946 who helped his father farm his land in Missouri, Dr. Harry R. (Bob) Glahn never anticipated that he would one day have such an amazing career with the NWS, much less become the agency’s first Scientist Emeritus.

Glahn also could be considered a scientist extraordinaire, since he is recognized throughout the world for his work with applied statistics. His extraordinary and historic career with the NWS has spanned over 54 years. Glahn had such an impact on the way forecasters gather, analyze, and present meteorological information, that the NWS chose him for the new and distinguished honor of being its first Scientist Emeritus.

In 1947, he became a rural school teacher in Missouri, continuing until 1951. While teaching, he studied at Northeast Missouri State Teachers College, (now Truman State University) receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1953; Glahn then joined the U.S. Air Force.

The Air Force sent him to Oklahoma A&M College to study meteorology and this led to him becoming a forecaster in the Air Force Alaskan Weather Center in Anchorage. Glahn liked meteorology so much that after the Air Force, he entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received his Master of Science degree in 1958.

It was with his Master of Science degree in hand that Glahn headed to the U.S. Weather Bureau (the predecessor of the National Weather Service), starting an impressive career that would last more than five decades. Upon coming to the Washington D.C. area, he studied statistics at the American University, and then entered the Pennsylvania State University on a fellowship and earned his Ph.D. in meteorology with a minor in statistics in 1963.

When Glahn entered the NWS in 1958, the agency was starting to experiment with computer technology, and Numerical Weather Prediction. Forecasts from the models weren’t very good at that point, but Glahn states, “It was obvious this was the way of the future. It was also obvious it would be a long time before “real weather” was forecast by the models, as they concentrated on the upper atmosphere. It was also obvious this was the place for statistics to play a role. The idea of Model Output Statistics (MOS) was quickly born.”

To know how much the world has changed since 1958, it helps to look back: the federal minimum wage was $1.00; a new car sold for under $4,000; and filling the tank cost $0.25 a gallon. No one owned a personal computer.

In the 1960s, while working in the Office of Meteorological Research, Glahn developed and successfully shepherded the implementation of MOS, which is a technique used to objectively interpret numerical model output and produce site-specific guidance.

“MOS is a method of producing weather forecasts that uses advanced statistical techniques to improve the accuracy of forecasts generated by computer models,” explained Glahn. “Especially, probabilistic prediction has always been one of my personal research interests.”

Glahn’s implementation of MOS was a major step in applying probability and statistics to create weather forecasts. MOS has helped forecasters produce high-quality weather forecasts up to seven days in advance. The MOS technique is used by almost every major national meteorological service in the world.

Glahn began his lastest position at the NWS in 1976 when he became Director of the NWS Techniques Development laboratory (now the Meteorological Development Laboratory). It was at TDL that he used his scientific expertise and leadership to continue to research, develop, and implement more efficient and effective scientific and forecasting services.
In the early 1990s, during the NWS modernization, Glahn sought to free forecasters from having to manually type hundreds of text forecasts. Instead, he envisioned forecasters using high-tech tools to analyze and probe complex and hazardous weather situations. Chief among these advancements in AWIPS (Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System) was the Interactive Forecast Preparation System, or IFPS, which allowed a transition from manpower intensive text products to more efficient, information-rich digital and graphical weather forecast products. Glahn, proficient in map projections, defined the grids in use by Weather Forecast Offices in AWIPS.

“A critical element of IFPS success is to have software that will compose information from the local database [grids] into text products,” Glahn reported in a 2003 NWS Focus article. He explained further that NWS forecast offices “can use the baseline formatter for the zone product and a locally-developed formatter for the fire weather product, or vice-versa.”

Glahn was constantly looking for ways to take the NWS to the next frontier. He set in motion a nationwide team to develop the National Digital Forecast Database, or NDFD, in which the gridded forecasts produced at every NWS weather forecast office are forged into a single, national gridded forecast database. Early in his career, Glahn developed the first computer worded forecast in the world, which had a major impact on how forecast products are created.  The computer production of text from the NDFD is now used throughout the NWS.

Thanks in large part to Glahn’s diligence, the MOS and NDFD projects are not only examples of technological greatness, but are also great connectors that link NWS forecasters together to protect the lives of NWS customers and the American public at large.

Glahn has authored or co-authored more than 160 scientific papers on various topics. A Fellow of the American Meteorological Society, he has received several awards, including the AMS Cleveland Abbe Award, the NOAA Distinguished Career Award, and the Department of Commerce Silver and Gold Medal awards.

Glahn has a true sense of what it means to “pass it on.” He established American Meteorology Society and National Weather Association scholarships, each providing $2,500 annually for students to study statistics as related to meteorology. He wants to give opportunities to learn probabilistic prediction to the next generations of meteorologists.

While many people might choose to go golfing or fishing after retirement, Glahn plans to return to the environment he’s felt most comfortable in for the past five decades — volunteering for the NWS and continuing his interests in statistical meteorology.

NWS Acting Director Laura Furgione has said, “You aren’t simply hired at the Weather Service–you are called.”

“Actually, we are called for life,” says Glahn. “Once weather gets in your blood, it is there to stay.”

Furgione has praised Glahn for his long career and his contributions to both NWS and the field of meteorology. “When he first started working at the Weather Bureau in 1958, the meteorological world was a different place,” said Furgione. “He has left his stamp on the world of meteorology and as the first Scientist Emeritus of the NWS, he once again broke new ground.”