Mass Appeal -- UW Meteorologist Cliff Mass Not Only Knows His Science; He's Also A Whiz At Getting It Across To The Public

Profiles in Science. An occasional series.

As an atmospheric scientist, Cliff Mass teaches and researches, but he also just plain enjoys the never-ending challenge of trying to forecast the weather.

At an age when other boys revved up miniature race cars and sent toy trains choo-chooing around little tracks, Cliff Mass was trying to understand the whys and hows of weather.

The 7-year-old's parents granted his wish and got him a toy weather station with gauges to read temperature, air pressure and wind speed.

Now, some 36 years later, the Lionel weather station remains at his parents' New York home, while the University of Washington meteorologist surrounds himself with digital thermometers, rain gauges, instruments, antennae and sensors that measure such things as wind speed, wind direction and ultraviolet radiation.

Satellite imagery that lets him peer at weather trends days ahead is just a quick chair swivel away in his office in the Atmospheric Sciences Department. Down the hall is a map room with printouts of surface temperature, forecasts of relative humidity in the lower half of the Earth's atmosphere and precipitation readings.

Mass has graduated from toy weather gauges to digital landscapes, along the way establishing himself as one of the area's most publicly visible scientists. It boils down to what you could call "Mass appeal": He knows his science - and is a stickler for scientific accuracy - but doesn't let meteorological buzzwords and jargon interfere with his plain-sense message.

Atmospheric-sciences students rank Mass among the department's top teachers, saying he makes their difficult course work "fascinating."

He has close ties to the National Weather Service, frequently passing on knowledge from his research to help the agency improve local forecasts. He's frequently quoted by local media trying to explain phenomena as diverse as black ice, destructive windstorms and rain of biblical proportions.

Mass also does a weekly spot for the university radio station, forecasting weekend weather for KUOW listeners.

And he is working to acquire funding for technology that would allow even more specific weather forecasts - broken down by sectors of the city for certain times of day.

His notion is that in the next decade, better technology will sharpen the accuracy of weather forecasting. But the trick will be getting that information out to the masses in a timely, accurate yet easy-to-comprehend way.

To Mass, weather is "the only ray of light" cutting through the doom and gloom of television news broadcasts. Being able to explain inexplicable weather phenomena gives him a heady feeling.

"Interest in the weather is almost like a naturalistic religion, one in which we are moved by the power and beauty of the meteorological spectacle, as well as the daily and annual rhythms that somehow reflect some deeper connections to the natural world," he wrote in an e-mail message.

Co-workers say Mass has done much to identify and study local weather phenomena. As early as 1981, he wrote about the impact of air from the north and south flowing around the Olympic Mountains. The two air streams collide, forcing air upward, leading to cloud formation and precipitation.

Mass did not coin the term "Puget Sound convergence zone," said Norbert Untersteiner, chairman of the UW Atmospheric Sciences Department, but he was among the early pioneers to identify its significance on rainfall.

Research for the "real world"

Mass agreed that he prefers applied vs. purely theoretical research.

"There are some people in this department - in many departments - who pride themselves on not being able to forecast the weather, pride themselves on not having anything to do with the real world," he said. "I wouldn't be happy in that environment."

Staff at the National Weather Service here are pleased with Mass' emphasis on real weather.

For example, local forecasters are guided, in part, by models run in Washington, D.C., that misread this region's topography.

In his research, Mass runs a more limited scale model. The finer resolution results in more accurate detail about this region. Mass recognized that running the so-called mesoscale model in real time - using the most current available weather data - would immediately benefit Seattle forecasters, said Brad Colman, the weather service's science and operations officer.

"You win on both sides," Colman said. "His model, not surprisingly, produces a more realistic representation of the weather."

Mass has "his feet on the ground - he understands that meteorology can be applied to forecasting," added Chris Hill, weather-service area manager. "But his head is in the clouds, in that he still has that exuberance for studying meteorology for the pure sake of studying it."

Astronomy was an early love

Mass was born in Far Rockaway, N.Y. For years, his intense curiosity about the weather was matched by an equal passion for astronomy. He attended Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where he pursued both interests.

Meteorology, the stronger of the two loves, won out.

Carl Sagan, the renowned astronomer who teaches at Cornell, recalls that the university didn't have a meteorology or atmospheric-sciences department, and Mass came to him looking to do a research project.

"Cliff was an extremely gifted, talented undergraduate who had already acquired a great deal of knowledge in atmospheric sciences, meteorology - how the global weather machine works," Sagan said.

He suggested Mass study weather conditions on Mars.

"And I gave him a little guidance, but he took off and taught himself almost everything he had to learn," Sagan said.

Mass' work became the first draft of a co-written piece that was published in the Journal of Atmospheric Sciences.

Sagan encouraged Stephen Schneider, a research scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, to take an interest in Mass while the Cornell senior completed a fellowship there.

Over the summer, the pair completed a paper that became a lead article in the journal Science. It examined how to do a simple model of the Earth's climate to test how much changes result from humans.

"That was pretty darn good for a kid right out of school," said Schneider, now a climatologist at Stanford University.

Acting on Sagan's recommendation, Mass pursued his Ph.D. at the University of Washington. Other than a brief stint at the University of Maryland, he's spent all of his career here, rising from research assistant to full professor.

If tiring, it's also rewarding

At one of his recent lectures, students huddle over their notebooks, alternately scribbling and glancing up at Mass. His talk is fast-paced. He frequently punctuates his points with charts shuttled on and off a projector.

Mass emerges drained, like the Energizer bunny robbed of its battery pack. In the corner of his office, a computer chirps, reminding him of e-mail messages demanding attention.

But he wouldn't trade his life even with high-paid lawyers who sometimes call him to share his scientific expertise with juries. Theirs is a world ornamented by polished wood desks, original artwork and coffee in fine china. His is a world of leaking roofs, shrinking research budgets and as many Oreos as you can scarf before the department colloquium begins.

Mass says he's happy.

Meteorology also enchants his offspring, if his sons' artwork in his office is any indication.

Nathan, 5, created a weather potpourri with a beaming yellow sun, snow man, rain and a puffy cotton ball representing fog. Brother Aaron, 10, teased and tinted cotton to represent cirrus, cumulus and stratus clouds.

Mass thinks it unlikely his sons will pursue careers in meteorology. In coming years, jobs in meteorology, in fact, could become more difficult to get. Congress threatens to dramatically slash science research funding, a rush of scientists who joined the field in the 1960s won't retire for another decade and hiring at National Weather Service is sluggish.

Mass explores the discouraging trends in an academic article he wrote to be published in June.

Next: Weather on the Web

Also, this summer, Mass will work on a prototype of a weather site that could soon appear on the Internet's World Wide Web. The Web site would fill in where current media lag.

Weather forecasting continues to improve but TV broadcasts are too short to go into specifics and newspapers aren't timely enough. A well-designed Web site could be tailored for nonscientists - heavy on graphics, interactivity, explanation and details of specific city sectors.

"We have all this detail. We have all this information. How we convey that in a useful form is very important," said Mass, ever emphasizing the practical. "Useful would be something that allows people to plan their lives."