Storms Above the Desert


Most people I talk to are surprised to learn how little scientists know about thunderstorms. Experts don't really understand the complicated motions of the updrafts and down-drafts, how rain and hail form, or the various processes that are responsible for generating the electrical energy that causes lightning.

It is easy to understand why people assume everything is known about thunderstorms. They have captured man's attention from earliest times, and were among the first natural phenomena that early scientific pioneers, such as Lucretius, Franklin, and Lomonosov, attempted to explain. One might suppose that by now, after several hundred years, we would have answered most of the fascinating questions thunderstorms pose, but we have not.

How little we know about thunderstorms is even more surprising in view of the important role they play in our lives. The winds, hail, lightning, floods, and tornadoes that thunderclouds produce can threaten us, take many lives, and cause great damage. But even more importantly, thunderclouds are beneficial. They provide most of the water that is required to grow the world's food. It is, therefore, not only to satisfy our curiosity, but very much in our own interest that we strive to learn how they work.

Thunderstorms have proven remarkably resistant to scientific investigation. In contrast to many phenomena that are continuously or predictably available for study, the occurrence of thunderstorms is highly variable in space and time. A great deal of skill and luck is required just to be in the right place at the right time to make observations. But being there is only the beginning; it is extraordinarily difficult and often dangerous to make measurements within or near an active storm with its violent turbulence, lightning, and hail.

Now, with modern technology, tools are becoming available that will enable scientists to secure the information necessary to understand the various processes taking place in the clouds. Among the leaders in thunderstorm research, nationally and internationally, are the scientists at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. It is fortunate that the twenty-fifth anniversary of Langmuir Laboratory has provided the occasion to recognize the achievements of this group.

Joe Chew, his collaborators, and their mentor Jim Corey are to be congratulated for providing an accurate and detailed record of the establishment of this facility and the steady stream of important contributions that have come from the scientists working there. Storms above the Desert will be an important chapter in the scientific history of thunderstorm investigation. At the same time it will provide nonspecialized readers with new insights into how the fascinating human endeavor we call scientific research comes about.

This account is particularly interesting to us because it tells much about the origins of Langmuir Laboratory that I had not known before and concerns close personal friends responsible for organizing and carrying out the unique and unusually productive research conducted there. I count myself as exceedingly fortunate that my interests in cloud seeding and atmospheric electricity have brought about my long and close association with the scientists at New Mexico Tech and Langmuir Laboratory.

Bernard Vonnegut

Atmospheric Sciences Research Center

State University of New York at Albany

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