David Atlas

Title
Distinguished Visiting Scientist
Organization
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
David Atlas
Biography

David Atlas is one of the most influential people in the past 60 years in the field of radar meteorology. His basic research, which began shortly after WWII, laid the foundations for the quantification and interpretation of weather radar echoes. Dr. Atlas’s many patents have led to the development of practical airborne radars for severe weather avoidance on commercial aircraft. He also established world-class research and development (R&D) groups at Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories, the University of Chicago, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Goddard Space Flight Center. Many of his students and colleagues are leaders in the field today.

Dr. Atlas’s first professional association was with the All Weather Flying Division, Clinton County Air Force Base, in Wilmington, Ohio, where he invented radar storm-contour mapping, which led to the adoption of airborne weather radar by the aviation industry. In 1948, he moved to the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories, where he was chief of the Weather Radar Branch until 1966. During that time, he pursued a variety of studies on the radar measurement of rainfall, the nature of raindrop size distributions, Doppler radar measurements of winds, and backscatter from the clear atmosphere.

From 1966 to 1972, he was a professor of meteorology at the University of Chicago. His research there was focused on wind measurements by radio-beam swinging measurements, radar turbulence detection, and Doppler radar measurements of precipitation. In collaboration with colleagues at the Naval Electronics Center at San Diego, he also conducted pioneering studies of waves and turbulence in the clear atmosphere using the ultra-high resolution FM/CW radar. Atlas moved to NCAR in Boulder, Colorado, in 1972, where he was director of the Atmospheric Technology Division and headed the establishment of major new facilities (radar, aircraft, balloons) for the national academic community. 

In 1974, he became director of the National Hail Research Experiment, a program to reduce hail by cloud seeding. In 1977, he was the founding director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric Sciences at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he lead a broad-based R&D program on the development of space-based instruments for monitoring the atmosphere, oceans, and cryosphere and conducted research on the measurement of rainfall from air and space platforms. This work ultimately led to the development and launch, in 1997, of the Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission, which made it possible to measure rainfall over tropical regions of the globe. Upon his retirement from NASA in 1984, Dr. Atlas established his own consulting firm but continued his research at the University of Maryland; the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology as Distinguished Visiting Scientist; and the Goddard Space Flight Center, where he is still Distinguished Visiting Scientist.

Dr. Atlas was elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering in 1986. He is also a Fellow of the American Geophysical Society, the Royal Meteorological Society (RMS), American Society for the Advancement of Science, and American Meteorological Society (AMS). In 1975, he was president of AMS, and in 2001 he was elected an Honorary Member. He was awarded the 1957 Guenter Loeser Award, Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories; the 1957 Meisinger Award, AMS; the 1964 Marcus O’Day Award, Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories; the 1966 Losey Award, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics; the 1981 Medal for Outstanding Leadership-NASA; the 1982 Presidential Award, NASA Meritorious Senior Executive; the 1983 Cleveland Abbe Award, AMS; 1989 Symons Memorial Medal, RMS; the 1991 Remote Sensing Award Lecture, AMS; the 1996 Carl Gustav Rossby Medal, AMS; and the 2004 Dennis J. Picard Medal for Radar Technologies and Application, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Dr. Atlas earned a B.Sc. in meteorology from New York University (NYU) in 1946 after training in meteorology at NYU and in radar at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) during his service in the Army Air Corps. In 1955, he earned a D.Sc. from MIT.

NAE Awards Winner
  • Founders
  • 2011
  • For five decades of research, innovation and development, leading to operational weather radar systems that have improved aviation safety and weather-related safety for millions worldwide.