Roscoe Braham Jr., pioneering meteorologist, 1921-2017

Prof. Emeritus Roscoe Braham Jr., a noted expert in cloud precipitation physics who furthered weather research by combining the use of aircraft with ground-based instruments, died May 28 at the Glenaire Retirement Community in Cary, N.C. He was 96.

“He was a giant of experimental meteorology and was one of the pioneers using aircraft for weather research,” said Prof. Andrew Davis, chair of the University of Chicago’s Department of Geophysical Sciences.

Braham performed key research for The Thunderstorm Project, which operated from 1946 to 1949. A congressionally mandated, multi-agency program to improve aircraft safety in thunderstorms, the project was the nation’s first large-scale meteorological study.

Braham’s participation in the project led to his discovery of the convection-cell organization of thunderstorms, and to his co-authorship of The Thunderstorm, a classic in the annals of meteorology. He is further noted for discovering the coalescence-freezing mechanism of precipitation in clouds.

“The Thunderstorm Project was very significant,” said Frank Richter, the Sewell L. Avery Distinguished Service Professor in Geophysical Sciences at UChicago. “It merged technical developments—for example instrumented aircraft and radar—to promote basic scientific insights and use these to develop practical strategies that made very important contributions to aircraft safety.”

These insights include recognition that radar could detect and guide aircraft around the most dangerous parts of thunderstorms.

“Today this is routine,” Braham commented in 1996, “but we must recall that during World War II radar was new, highly classified and essentially limited to the military.”

Braham also played a key role in promoting mutual respect between the faculties of the meteorology and geology departments at UChicago, which merged to become the department of geophysical sciences in 1961.

“The merging of two historic and highly successful departments of meteorology and geology would require the joint faculty to surrender a certain amount of their professional identity, which was bound to create a certain amount of friction,” Richter said. “Roscoe Braham on the meteorology side and Julian Goldsmith from geology were the key persons who by their civility and intellectual tolerance turned what could have been a very fractured new department into one that became a model of a more holistic approach to the earth sciences.”

Braham was born Jan. 3, 1921, in Yates City, Ill. He earned his bachelor’s degree in geology from Ohio University in 1941. He married Mary Ann Moll in 1943 in Xenia, Ohio.

During World War II, Braham served in the U.S. Army Air Corps, first as a weather officer, later as a bomber pilot. After his discharge in 1946, he entered graduate school at the University of Chicago to study cloud physics, earning his master’s degree in 1948 and his doctorate in 1951.

“He always stressed the importance of education, calling education our meal ticket,” said his son, Richard Braham, a professor of forestry at North Carolina State University. Two of Roscoe Braham’s daughters, Ruth Ann and Nancy, became grade school and high school teachers. His third daughter, Jean, became a registered nurse.

“His summer research locations were of necessity in areas largely removed from commercial airline traffic, allowing his plane to fly wherever needed,” Richard Braham recalled. “To keep the family together during the research season, the family would find a campground within commuting distance and set camp, often for as long as five to six weeks.”

Braham retired from UChicago in 1991. He and his wife then moved to Cary, N.C.

During his career Braham also served as a research meteorologist at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, as founding director of the Institute of Atmospheric Physics at the University of Arizona, and as a visiting scientist at North Carolina State University.

Braham was a co-founder of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. UCAR manages NCAR under sponsorship from the National Science Foundation.

He was author or co-author of more than 80 scientific reports, books and manuscripts.

Braham had collected many honors during his career, including the Silver Medal from the U.S. Department of Commerce for his work on the Thunderstorm Project. He also received the Rossby Research Medal from the American Meteorological Society, the Losey Award from the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences and an honorary doctorate from North Carolina State University.

Braham is survived by his wife, Mary Ann; daughters, Ruth Ann Ashton, Nancy Billingslea and Jean Barwig; son, Richard Braham; eight grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.

Memorial services were held. Donations may be made to the Edith Braham Endowment, which supports meteorology collections at the North Carolina State University Libraries.