Meteorologically speaking, the Midwest can be an exciting place, hosting everything from tornadoes to snow storms. As a child growing up in Indiana, Dr. Jim Hurrell ’84 developed an interest in the weather, thanks to his father, Wilson, an adjunct professor in the School of Business at the University of Indianapolis. Jim describes his father as “an absolute nut for weather,” so it’s no surprise that Jim has dedicated his life to atmospheric science and research. Today he is the director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (pictured below), in Boulder, Colo.
Growing up in Indianapolis, Jim never expected to attend UIndy, which was just ten minutes from his house. But “when I realized that my Little League career wasn’t going to work out for me,” said Jim with a laugh, “I decided to give science a try.”
As an undergraduate math and earth-space sciences major at UIndy, Jim began to work with the National Weather Service as an NOAA weather radio broadcaster, thanks to connections through a professor, Dr. William Gommel, who worked at UIndy for nearly 30 years. Jim gave weather reports for local radio and television stations and began to network with professionals in the field. He knew then that he wanted to pursue a career in atmospheric science.
Jim went on to Purdue to pursue his master’s and doctorate in atmospheric science, finishing his education in 1990. He was attending a local chapter meeting of the American Meteorological Society later that year when he was offered a post-doctoral research position at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Nine months into the research position, he applied for a permanent job with NCAR and has been there ever since.
“I often thought I might return to higher education to teach,” says Jim, “but I never did. Instead, I’ve had opportunities I never would have dreamed of as a kid to travel around the world and do the science that I love and present and publish.”
Jim specializes in climate variability and global climate change and spent many years conducting research in that field before gradually moving more into management roles.
“I ask questions such as, ‘What makes the climate system operate? What causes variations in weather and climate? How are humans affecting and changing the climate system?’ It truly is a global problem,” he explains.
A world of weather research
Over the past quarter century, he has been involved with more than 25 committees on climate research around the world, has written nearly 100 articles in leading scientific journals, and given more than 150 invited and keynote talks at scientific conferences and other venues. He has worked intensely with the World Climate Research Programme, a group whose purpose is to understand the human influence on climate. The program works to coordinate research internationally.
“Programs like WCRP bring together a team of international scientists to tackle some of the most difficult issues that we are facing,” he explains. “I’ve worked with scientists from Asia, Africa, Australia, South America, and Europe, and it’s been a very rewarding career. But I’m not done yet!” he adds with a laugh. He also spent six years as a chair of the Climate Variability and Predictability program, one of four core projects of the WCRP. One high-light of his career came in 2007 as a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: he was one of the authors of a report that earned the panel the Nobel Peace Prize that year, which was shared with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore. They were honored “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.”
Leading a massive effort
Jim’s skills as a scientist and as a manager led him to become the director of the Climate and Global Dynamics Division at NCAR for several years, and then to become the director of the NCAR Earth System Laboratory, where he directed research efforts about air quality, numerical weather prediction and forecasting, and climate modeling. He became the director of NCAR in 2013, overseeing approximately 850 staff and an annual budget of $175 million.
“NCAR is a nexus for the atmospheric and related-sciences community,” explains Jim. “We work closely with oceanographers, cryosphere scientists, chemists, social scientists, computer scientists, mathematicians, and more. We are here to facilitate the science research that is bigger than any university or organization can do on its own.”
NCAR maintains equipment for research aircraft and for super computers, and can work on endeavors that take years or decades, explains Jim.
“And we make it all freely available to the research community,” he adds.
Jim has put his personal research on hold in his role as the director of NCAR, but he enjoys the challenges of his career.
“It’s a demanding job, yet very rewarding,” he says. “NCAR has provided so much for me, and it’s time for me to give back to the organization. I’m honored and humbled to serve as the director, and it’s been an incredible journey that I never could have dreamed of. “I firmly recognize that UIndy provided me with a solid foundation that resulted in all these amazing opportunities.”
—Jen Huber ’07