Exploring past, present & future: Q&A with Don MacGorman

Don MacGorman.
Don MacGorman.

During the month of February, NSSL will feature some of its longest-serving employees. Those employees will share their favorite experiences through the years, and highlight some of the most significant changes they have witnessed.

Physicist Don MacGorman has been a senior research scientist at the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory for more than 35 years. He began as a National Research Council postdoctoral researcher at NSSL to study lightning in the late 1970s before becoming a federal scientist at NSSL in the late 1980s. Among his many awards is being named Fellow by the American Meteorological Society.

Q: How did you get into your field?
A: I entered the Space Physics Department at Rice University for graduate school, because space exploration had always fascinated me and was evolving beyond science fiction into a growing and relatively new field of research in the early 1970s. When it was time for me to choose a research project, the two openings that appealed to me most were 1) studying the aurora, which involved launching rockets in Alaska, or 2) studying lightning with a new system that had just been developed to reconstruct the three dimensional structure of lightning inside clouds from thunder recorded by an array of microphones. I thought lightning and thunderstorms were awesome phenomena when I was growing up, and the combination of new lightning mapping technology and weather radars promised to provide our first look at where and when lightning occurred inside storms. So, I chose lightning studies for my dissertation research and have continued in that field of research as new lightning mapping technologies provided new capabilities.

Dave Rust and Don MacGorman in a thunderstorm with weather tools.
Dave Rust and Don MacGorman preparing for a balloon launch in 2007. (Photo by Chris Emersic.)

Q: What are you most proud of during your time at NSSL or what is the most significant achievement of your career?
A: I cannot choose just one, but am proud of all the following:
— Helping prove that lightning flashes tend to be initiated between two regions of opposite charge polarity, with their channels then propagating into and throughout the charge regions.
— Convincing LLP, Inc. — the original developer of what became the National Lightning Detection Network — to modify their system to map lightning strikes that lower positive charge to ground, in addition to mapping those that lower the usual negative charge.
— Helping to prove these anomalous cloud-to-ground flashes are produced naturally in some severe storms and in the stratiform region of many mesoscale convective systems.
— Proving that local storms in which most cloud-to-ground flashes lower positive charge to ground do so because the polarity of their vertical charge distribution is inverted from the usual polarity.
— Working with Conrad Ziegler and Ted Mansell at NSSL and Jerry Straka at The University of Oklahoma to develop what was then the most sophisticated numerical cloud model that explicitly included electrification processes and lightning and has evolved to remain the most capable such model.
— Writing an award-winning, ground-breaking graduate textbook called “The Electrical Nature of Thunderstorms” with former NSSL researcher Dave Rust, published by Oxford Press.

Q: What is it about your job that interests and engages you?
A: I am awed by the beauty and power of thunderstorms and lightning and I love puzzling out what makes them behave the way they do. My colleagues at NSSL provide a great job environment – they are talented and help stimulate new ideas to explore how these phenomena behave.

Q: What is the most significant advancement in your field during your time at NOAA?
A: There have been many advances in our knowledge that I think are outstanding, but what I think is most remarkable are the new tools we have gained that make these advances in our knowledge possible. In my specialty, the tools I think have been most significant are the initial and improving technologies for remotely mapping lightning location and structure inside storms, the development of three-dimensional numerical cloud models that produce realistic simulations of charge distributions and lightning within their storm context, and the new Geosynchronous Lightning Mapper on GOES-16 and soon, hopefully, to be on GOES-S.

MacGorman with one of NSSL's Mobile Laboratory field observation vehicles on a research project.
MacGorman with one of NSSL’s Mobile Laboratory field observation vehicles on a research project.

Q: Tell us something that might surprise us about you.
A: When I was in 11th grade, I lived in Beirut, Lebanon, and attended an American high school there. Shortly before the end of the second semester, my family, along with the entire school and most American families in Beirut, was evacuated by the United States Embassy when the 1967 Arab-Israeli war began. My family was taken to Athens, Greece, and then to Rome, where my parents left me and two of my brothers to visit several European cities over a two week period before we returned home. That included a visit to Berlin, where we took a bus tour through the very intimidating Berlin Wall to East Berlin, complete with soldiers searching very thoroughly for stowaways inside and outside the bus on our return west back through the wall.

Q: What is your personal philosophy?
A: I don’t remember where I got this from, although I know I have heard something similar to it, but probably worded better, several times: I try to look for the good I can do and to do it wherever and whenever I can. Not to say that I am very good at it, but I try. I thought Dave Rust did this as well as anyone I have seen, and I have tried to emulate some of the ways in which I saw him do it.

Q: What is the future of your area of research?
A: During the last four decades, our field has made a lot of progress in understanding the electrification of storms and the lightning they produce – I think it would be accurate to say the progress has been revolutionary. There still is much we do not understand yet, but the new and improving technologies for observations and the rapid increase in computing capabilities and numerical model development make me optimistic that rapid progress in understanding the electrical properties of storms will continue. I am excited by what I think is an incredible opportunity for advancement in understanding and for using lightning observations in weather operations.

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