Love of the sea lures Reynolds to 15-year NOAA voyage

When Richard Reynolds was younger he had hoped to turn his love of the water and his background in physics into a career uncovering the mysteries of the deep living the life of the famous underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau. "I've been in love with the water for a long time - since childhood " said Reynolds who is now a research oceanographer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Although my initial background is in physics I had a background in boating and did some scuba diving. I thought naively I could be Jacques Cousteau so I went to the University of Hawaii [in 1970] to get my Ph.D. in oceanography."

His romantic vision soon butted heads with reality. "There were people that were biologists who were trained to interact with the ocean and marine species and I didn't have that training " Reynolds said.

Reynolds who has a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in physics in addition to the Ph.D. in oceanography he received in 1975 soon found a position that fit his ability and background at the Max Planck Institut fuer Meteorologie in Hamburg Germany. There he studied from 1976 to 1977 how the oceans and atmosphere interact.

"This turned out to be a very important choice" in developing his career he said. Reynolds arrived at NOAA in 1980 following a three-year stint as a research associate at Oregon State University from 1977 to 1980.

"Serendipitously I came to NOAA when we were experiencing the 1982-83 El Nino " he said. "And at that time there were some real problems with the sea surface temperature data. At the time I said `I can [solve those problems] in a couple of weeks.' Well I've been spending 15 years doing that."

El Nino is a warm weather system that develops over the Pacific Ocean and changes weather patterns every two to seven years on average. The changes in the sea surface temperature and the interaction with the atmosphere bring important consequences for weather around the globe Reynolds said.

Understanding sea surface temperatures is an important part of forecasting when El Nino will occur and how strong the event will be. Reynolds' work focuses on maintaining the accuracy of sea surface temperature data sets that are used as part of the predicting process.

He and his group who work for the National Weather Service's Environmental Modeling Center run ocean and atmospheric models couple them and make predictions on sea surface temperatures one month to a year in advance. Atmospheric models are then run with the predicted sea surface temperatures to forecast temperature and precipitation over North America for up to a year. Because the models themselves are constantly improving and changing Reynolds and his group must reanalyze the data to ensure the model output is as accurate as possible.

Recently Reynolds and eight other scientists won a Commerce Department Gold Medal for their expertise in completing atmospheric reanalyses. Reynolds developed sea surface temperatures for the reanalysis which can be used to produce better forecasts of climate extremes such as El Nino. Although the 1982-83 El Nino came as somewhat of a surprise today data collection and mathematical models have improved.

"We know a lot more about El Nino today " Reynolds said. "The 1982-83 El Nino was called the `El Nino of the century.' Now we're having the second El Nino of the century. But this time our models predicted it."

When he is not studying the water Reynolds finds time to enjoy it. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Calvert County Md. just a few miles from a sailboat he shares with friends.

"I'm originally from New Jersey but I've been here for 17 years " he said. "This is a pretty nice place. For me the difference is the Chesapeake. I like to be on the water."

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