Studying Storms: Meteorologist Charles E. Anderson's Dissertation on Cumulus Clouds

August 13, 2020

Studying Storms: Meteorologist Charles E. Anderson's Dissertation on Cumulus Clouds

One of the stand-out items in our new catalogue on the climate crisis is the dissertation of Charles E. Anderson, the first Black American to earn a PhD in meteorology, whose work focused on storms, cloud and aerosol physics, and the meteorology of other planets.

Anderson earned his bachelor’s degree at Lincoln University and in 1943 received a certificate in meteorology from the Army Air Forces Meteorological Aviation Cadet Program at the University of Chicago. He was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant and served as a Base Weather Officer for the Tuskegee Airmen between May 1943 and January 1944. You can hear Anderson recalling this experience in an audio file uploaded to YouTube by the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

After the war Anderson continued his education with a master of science in chemistry at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn and in 1960 a PhD in meteorology at MIT. His dissertation analyses the development of five cumulus congestus clouds near Tucson, Arizona, which “were found to exhibit a pulsating form of cellular convection as they grew upward”. Anderson proposed a “physical model for the circulation of a growing cumulus, in which two cells are acting concurrently, yet independently, along the same vertical axis” (abstract). The importance of this research was recognised immediately, and it was honoured with immediate publication (Krapp, Notable Black American Scientists, p. 12).

Anderson had a long and varied career, working for the Air Force, the Douglas Aircraft Company, and the Department of Commerce before joining the University of Wisconsin as a professor and eventually associate dean.

His final post was at North Carolina State University, where he was “a major contributor to a program at the university that has received national recognition for its forecasting of severe storms” (Brown, The Faces of Science: African Americans in Science, University of California, Irvine website).