NSSL Announces Passing of Pioneering Lightning Researcher Dave Rust

We are saddened to announce the death of one of the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory’s renowned scientists who made significant and revolutionary contributions to thunderstorm science. David “Dave” Rust, NSSL scientist emeritus, passed away surrounded by family on Monday, May 8, 2017.

A physicist and observational scientist, Rust pioneered creative ways to measure storms for more than 35 years until his retirement from NSSL in 2010. From mobile laboratories to instrumented storm-penetrating balloons, Rust’s measurements have shaped our present understanding of how storms become charged and produce lightning.

“I have always been in awe of nature,” said Rust in 2011 as he recalled lying on his front lawn in New Braunfels, Texas, watching the changing shapes of summertime cumulus clouds. He was an only child who loved to study, tinker and build.

Retired NSSL scientist Dave Rust, and then grad student Sean Waugh look at a static electricity exhibit with Exploratorium staff.

 

It was during graduate school at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro, New Mexico, that Rust stumbled into the field of atmospheric electricity. He was measuring radon flow in mountain canyons for his master’s work, but found something magical about the weather. In his spare time he helped with thunderstorm projects, eventually moving his research into atmospheric electricity. His doctoral dissertation became the foundation of his career: the electrical conditions near the bases of thunderclouds using measurements from a tethered balloon.

As a postdoctoral fellow in Boulder, Colorado, he used “free-ballooning” to measure the electric field inside thunderstorms. He continued this work at NSSL, where he directed a fleet of mobile research facilities (excluding mobile radars) for decades. Beginning with the mobile lab he helped build at NSSL out of an old Suburban truck in 1979, the armada now includes mobile ballooning facilities, field coordination vehicles, mobile mesonet vehicles and mobile radars.

Dave Rust briefs his crew in front of a mobile lab.

 

Rust saw the value in going out to find the storms rather than waiting for them to come to NSSL. Countless other scientists and research projects have benefited from the ability to measure temperature, pressure, dew point, wind speed and direction, the electric field, and even return stroke velocities in a storm.

“I get a great deal of satisfaction supporting other research,” he said in 2014.

Rust co-wrote a graduate level textbook with NSSL’s Don MacGorman, “The Electrical Nature of Storms.” A review by a colleague said, “The book is clearly the best compilation of material on storm electricity that exists today.” He has also advised and mentored numerous graduate students over the years.

Rust lead the way in many endeavors, including becoming the first NSSL scientist to receive the honor of being elected Fellow of the American Geophysical Union in 2014. Established in 1962, the Fellows program recognizes AGU members who have attained acknowledged eminence in the Earth and space sciences as valued by their peers and vetted by a Union-wide committee of Fellows.

In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting donations be made in Dave Rust’s name to the Parkinson Foundation of Oklahoma City and the Oklahoma Chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. For his full obituary, visit The Norman Transcript.

Dave Rust tries to extract an Electric Field Meter from a cactus during a field campaign.
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Dave Rust elected AGU Fellow

Dave Rust briefs his crew in front of a mobile lab.
Dave Rust briefs his crew in front of a mobile lab.

NSSL retiree W. David Rust has been elected Fellow of the American Geophysical Union, the first NSSL scientist to receive the honor.

He joins three other NOAA scientists who will be celebrated during the Honors Ceremony and banquet at the 2014 AGU Fall Meeting Dec. 17 in San Francisco. They are Michael J. McPhaden and James Overland, both with the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory; and David D. Parrish with the Chemical Sciences Division of the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory.

Rust has made significant and revolutionary contributions to thunderstorm science, especially through observation platforms from mobile laboratories to instrumented storm-penetrating balloons. Rust’s measurements have contributed much to our present understanding of how storms become charged and produce lightning.

It was during graduate school at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro, New Mexico, that Rust stumbled into the field of atmospheric electricity. He was measuring radon flow in mountain canyons for his Master’s work, but found something magical about the weather.  In his spare time he helped with thunderstorm projects, eventually moving his research into atmospheric electricity.  His doctoral dissertation became the foundation of his career: the electrical conditions near the bases of thunderclouds using measurements from a tethered balloon.

“Tethered doesn’t work,” Rust said, so he built something that did. As a post doctoral fellow in Boulder, Colorado, he used “free-ballooning” to measure the electric field inside thunderstorms. “I think that probably mobile ballooning would be my biggest career success,” Rust said.

Rust directed NSSL’s fleet of mobile research facilities (excluding mobile radars) for decades.  Beginning with the mobile lab he helped build at NSSL out of an old Suburban truck in 1979, the armada now includes mobile ballooning facilities, field coordination vehicles, mobile mesonet vehicles and mobile radars.  Rust saw the value in going out to find the storms rather than waiting for them to come to NSSL.  Countless other scientists and research projects have benefited from the ability to measure temperature, pressure, dew point, wind speed and direction, the electric field, and even return stroke velocities in a storm. “I get a great deal of satisfaction supporting other research,” he said.

Rust co-wrote a graduate level textbook with NSSL’s Don MacGorman, “The Electrical Nature of Storms.”  A review by a colleague said, “The book is clearly the best compilation of material on storm electricity that exists today.” He has also advised and mentored numerous graduate students over the years.

Rust has a message for his colleagues:  “I really appreciate the help and collaboration of the staff at NSSL during three decades.  Whatever success I’ve had professionally has been in large part the result of collaborations with, and a tremendous amount of help from NSSL people.”

Established in 1962, the Fellows program recognizes AGU members who have attained

acknowledged eminence in the Earth and space sciences as valued by their peers and vetted by a Union- wide committee of Fellows. Primary criteria for evaluation in scientific eminence are a major breakthrough or discovery, paradigm shift, or sustained impact.

 

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What’s it like to work at a museum?

NSSL’s Dave Rust, Sean Waugh, and Susan Cobb spent two weeks at the San Francisco Exploratorium science museum as part of a NOAA Environmental Literacy grant to introduce staff and visitors to weather science.  The following is a description of how a just a portion of time was spent, from Susan’s perspective.

Whirring, clanking,  buzzing.  It’s Monday, and though the SFO Exploratorium is closed, the world-renowned museum of science, art and human perception still hums with activity.

“If you break it, it’s our fault,” proclaims the staff proudly.  Intended to be a completely “hands-on, play with it, figure it out” type of experience, each exhibit is designed to be durable.  There are few placards telling you what to do.

NSSL scientists were part of a unique NOAA education grant to educate SFO Exploratorium visitors about severe weather science.  The project involved a week of orientation and planning in the fall, and two weeks in the spring.  During those weeks we had a key to the museum, which made me a little giddy.  Who gets a key to a museum?

Weather is not currently addressed at the Exploratorium, not directly anyway.  We could show atmospheric movements in the “Fluid Trough,” and how thunderstorms form in the “Convection Currents” display.  But in a year, the Exploratorium will be moving from their current site at the Palace of Fine Arts not far from the Golden Gate Bridge, to Pier 15 on the Embarcadero.  There they WILL have a weather observatory, and NOAA has had a role in helping brainstorm ways to showcase weather.

“We can run around in it?”  The ‘tornado machine’ immediately draws hands into its vortex of water vapor.  Parents hold their children back until Exploratorium staff assures them it is okay.  “Run around in it!  Stand over the vent.  Block the airflow.  What happens?”  An “Explainer” approaches with a bottle of bubbles and gently blows the bubbles into the funnel.  Some get flung outwards towards the squeals of the children.  Some rise up into the tube until they pop.

“What is it?”

“What do you think it is?”

“A tornado?”

“Yeah!  An upside down tornado. How do you think it works?”  We introduce them to moisture, rising air, ingredients for a thunderstorm.  “What makes it spin?”

We move on to shear.  “Feel the air coming out of those holes.  Which direction is it going?  How about over here?  And at that other column? Do you know, we study tornadoes where I work?”

“Really?  How?  Why?”

“Well, we don’t really know how tornadoes start.  I mean, we know what makes a big monster thunderstorm start to turn, but we don’t really know what makes that huge storm concentrate that energy into a smaller funnel.”

“Oh!  I know!”  A six year old sits next to me at the tornado machine and spends ten minutes explaining his theory on tornado formation.  “The storm gets a lot of energy and pushes it together and explodes into a tornado!”  This was the abridged version, but he went on to talk about how Zeus and Thor had roles too.  He was from Italy.

“Oh!  We just saw Tornado Alley at the IMAX theater!”

“Did you see that car over there in the movie?”

“Oh yes!”

“We take cars like that and drive them into storms!  That one has hail dents the size of BASEBALLS!  See that stuff on top?  Those are weather instruments so we can measure the storm as we drive through.  How else do you think we could study storms? They’re kind of big and dangerous so we have to be clever.”

“Could you fly through the storm?”

“Well, we do sometimes, but it’s bumpy and dangerous.”

Puzzled looks.

“Well, see that big plastic bag up there?  It is a huge weather balloon!  We attach instruments to it and fly it into the storm!  Wanna see a launch?  See this instrument?  What do you see?  It got struck by LIGHTNING while it was attached to that balloon! Do you wanna know what these instruments do?”

“Whoa!  That’s so cool!”

“I’m from Joplin,”  said another visitor.  We went on to talk what happened May 22, 2011.  Her eyes were haunted.  “A tornado has come too close to me before. I took shelter.  I don’t know why others didn’t.”

“Well we are looking into that problem right now.  We have meteorologists and social scientists, emergency managers and engineers all talking about ways to solve it.”

“Oh, I am so glad to hear that.  Please keep doing this work.”

“Those are the clouds over the earth right now?”

“Yup!  This is called Living Earth, an app on the iPad.  Do you see any curly ques?”

“I see a curly que!”

“Yeah!  That’s a storm!  Over Antarctica!  Let’s see what it looks like there right now.  Oh!  There IS a storm!  Look how snowy it is!  But here is another place in Antarctica away from the storm.  See the icebergs?”

“Those are icebergs right now?”

“Yup!  Wanna see a volcano?  This is Kilauea in Hawaii.  See the smoke?  If you check back at night, you can see it glow!”

I knew I had connected when one in a crowd of first graders put her hand on my shoulder (I was sitting on the floor with them), and asked if she could tell me a story about weather.

“Of course!”

The Exploratorium has been hesitant to delve into the world of technology, including iPads, to enhance the visual experience.  But I think we showed how it could work.  From sharing photos of tornadoes, lightning or clouds, to YouTube videos of balloon launches or live current radar where severe weather was occurring, people were fascinated.  Many adults would get out a piece of paper and write down the names of the apps I would show them.

“Do you have any games on your iPad?” from a little boy.

Well, okay, not everyone.

I sometimes stood near the “cloud in a bottle” demonstration.  Increasing the air pressure in a clear soda bottle with some water in it, and releasing the pressure to produce a little puff of vapor can hardly compete with the popular cow eye dissection that occurs most days on the hour.  But it was fun to connect the cloud demonstration with what was happening outside.  Don’t remember what the sky was like before you came in?  There’s an app for that!  Let’s look!

But that was just a small part of our time.  Mornings, even on the weekends, were spent conducting “trainings.”  These were special sessions with floor staff called “Explainers” who facilitate the visitor experience.  During these times, we would share our knowledge and experience, and answer their questions.  They will translate this new knowledge to visitors after our residency was over.

Where’s Dave?  The training was set to start at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, with our retired storm electricity scientist showing how to use the Van De Graff generator to explain lightning.  9:40 a.m.  Hmmm.  Our hostess is missing too.  Daylight Savings time had left me in front of a roomful of teenagers.  Alone!  I wasn’t going to tackle atmospheric electricity on my own, but I did have some questions.  I’ve always wanted to work at a science museum.  How in the world did these teenagers score this gig?

So I asked.

“My brother did it first.  He loved it.”

“Really?” said their manager.  “I didn’t know that!”

“I like science.”

“It sounded cool.”

“How did you, Susan Cobb, get into your career?”

“Well, the Wizard of Oz.”

“What?!? No way!”

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“Marine biologist.”

“Environmental scientist.”

“Science teacher.”

More than two thirds of the room wanted to pursue a career in science.  But their enthusiasm was measured.  Dave finally arrived.

“Will you give me a job?” one said.

“Do well in school,” was Dave’s fatherly answer.

“My kid loves weather!  What did you have to study?”

“Math, lots of math.”

“Oh.  He’s not good at math.”

“That’s okay, neither was I.”

“But you still did it?”

“Yes, the only thing I have ever wanted to do was be a meteorologist.”

“You need to talk to my son.  Let me find him.  Will you still be here?”

“What’s that?”

“Radar.  I am looking to see if the rain is going to stop today in SFO.  What do you think?  Which way is it moving?  What do the colors mean?  Why are their pinks and blues over here?  What?  Snow in the Sierras?  Let’s check the webcam at Lake Tahoe!”

The clang of a loud dinner bell gives the signal that the museum is closing for the day.  The high school explainer team herds visitors toward the exits and shut down exhibits.  Opening people’s eyes to the world around them.  Making them curious about weather and weather phenomena.  Sparking their interest in science.  Answering their questions.  Showing them research matters.  Giving me confidence I do know something worth sharing.  That’s what the NOAA Scientist in Residence program did for me.

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Reasons to celebrate!

2011 NOAA Distinguished Career Award:  Scientific Achievement

W. David Rust

For contributions to the understanding of lightning and storm electrification and to the development of mobile storm observing systems.

Bronze Medals

Kenneth W. Howard Group

For the design and implementation of a seamless gridded system for multi-sensor-derived precipitation estimation over the continental U.S.
Kenneth W. Howard

Jian Zhang

Jonathan J. Gourley

Steven V. Vasiloff

Rodger A. Brown Group

For excellence in transferring research to operations and providing a new WSR-88D radar capability that significantly enhanced forecast operations.

Rodger A. Brown
Vincent T. Wood
Charles Parish
Scott Enders
Sallie Ahlert
Keith Peabody
Christina Horvat
Michael Weeks
Zack Jing

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NOAA researchers share science of storms at San Francisco Exploratorium

A team from NSSL will be NOAA Scientists in Residence at the world-renowned San Francisco Exploratorium science museum from March 8-25, 2012.  During the event, “Rain in the Air:  The Science of Storms,” the team will offer Exploratorium staff and visitors a behind the scenes look at the tools, techniques and people behind the effort to better understand severe storms.

NSSL retired researcher Dave Rust will share his thunderstorm electricity expertise and his skill at creating weather measuring instruments. Dave pioneered the use of free-flying balloons and mobile laboratories to make observations, significantly advancing thunderstorm science.

Susan Cobb is a meteorologist and science writer for NSSL, and her experience includes international forecasting, and writing about weather science for all audiences. Susan will work with visitors to understand, experience and forecast weather in the San Francisco area and around the world.

Sean Waugh is a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma and an instrumentation specialist working with the NSSL.  He helped design and build seven Mobile Mesonets, storm research cars outfitted with weather instruments, computers, and communications equipment. Sean will give personal tours of the Mobile Mesonet and focus on ways NSSL collects data to learn more about storms.

Cobb and Waugh will give presentations on current NSSL research at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 18, 2012 in the McBean Theater.

The partnership is the result of a five-year educational grant with NOAA to co-develop interactive exhibits, learning experiences and professional development workshops for the learning institution.

The NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory’s mission to improve our knowledge of severe
weather and to develop new tools to better forecast and warn of its hazards has endured since its establishment in 1964.

The Exploratorium first opened in 1969 and welcomes more than 500,000 visitors each year.

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NSSL partners with San Francisco’s Exploratorium

Rust and Waugh
Retired NSSL scientist Dave Rust, and OU/CIMMS/NSSL grad student Sean Waugh look at a static electricity exhibit with Exploratorium staff.

A team from NSSL spent a week at the world-renowned San Francisco Exploratorium to work with staff as part of the NOAA Scientist in Residence program.  The Exploratorium is a unique museum dedicated to unstructured exploration and discovery of science and art.

NSSL retired researcher Dave Rust led the team and shared his expertise as an observational scientist and creator of observation platforms.  Rust, along with NSSL/CIMMS’s Sean Waugh and Susan Cobb brainstormed with staff to develop demonstrations, experiments and exhibits on weather and severe weather.  They also gave presentations on NSSL and their research and worked with “explainers” who serve as guides in the museum.  Part of the time was spent discussing new ideas for an outdoor observatory to be located at the Exploratorium’s new location on Pier 15, opening in 2013.

The team will return in late Winter 2012 for two weeks to share NOAA NSSL research with Exploratorium visitors.

The partnership is the result of a five-year educational grant with NOAA to co-develop interactive exhibits, online learning experiences and professional development workshops for the learning institution.

The Exploratorium first opened in 1969 and welcomes more than 500,000 visitors each year.

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Dave’s most significant awards

2011:  American Meteorological Society Fellow

2010:  NASA Space Flight Awareness Team Award as a member of the NASA and USAF Lightning Advisory Panel (2010) for work developing lightning launch commit criteria.  Presented by the NASA Space Shuttle Launch Director to Dave and team.

2008:  NASA Certificate of Recognition for helping develop a radar-based product to detect conditions conducive to the triggered lightning hazard for rocket launches

2000:  OAR Outstanding Paper Award for coauthored graduate level textbook, “The Electrical Nature of Storms,” Oxford University Press.

2000:  Certificate of Appreciation from the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve

1995:  U.S. Dept. of Commerce Gold Medal Award as part of NSSL for research leading to network of Doppler radars

1994:  The Langmuir Award for Excellence in Research

1988:  U.S. Dept. of Commerce Gold Medal Award for “Research accomplishments in understanding atmospheric electrification and extraordinary contributions to the Nation’s aviation and space programs.”

1988:  Distinguished Alumni Lecturer, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology

1996:  Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies (CIMMS) Fellow

1986:  NASA Group Achievement Award:  Lightning Mapper Science and Sensor     Concept

1985:  NASA Group Achievement Award:  Optical Lightning Detection Experiment

1980:  Election to Sigma Xi

1977:  NASA Robert H. Goddard Trophy:  Viking Mission to Mars

1977:  The Langmuir Award for Excellence in Research   (the first awarded)

1976:  NASA Group Achievement Award:  Apollo-Soyuz and related launch support

1976:  U.S. Dept. of Commerce Silver Medal Award for “Contributions . . . in suppressing lightning strokes in thunderstorms.”

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An office and a workbench

HD Particle Imager
The HD Particle Imager in the machine shop

Dave has an office on the 4th floor of the National Weather Center, and a workbench in NSSL’s machine shop down in the “vehicle bay.”  The shop looks like a miniature Home Depot; an organized clutter of soldering guns, wires and voltage meters.  Shelves are stacked with radiosondes, electric field meters, balloon launching materials and the high-wind balloon launching tube he built out of a plastic swimming pool cover and Velcro.  Helium tanks line the walls under white boards with schematic drawings of the HD Particle Imager.  This is where creativity takes shape and inventions are born.

With calls for his launch teams to report to the vehicle bay late at night to intercept approaching storms, it has been hard to tell Dave is trying to retire.  He plans to continue his research, but at a slower pace. A lifetime of curiosity and ingenuity has made Dave Rust a pioneer and an expert in the field of storm electricity, and we at NSSL are grateful for his vision and impact.

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Helping with NASA’s lightning issues

Contours of the electric field at the ground shortly after the launch of VIKING 2.

Dave also had an impact on spacecraft launch criteria at NASA. He was NOAA Advisor during the launches of two Viking spacecraft, using surface and airborne electric field measurements to determine the risk of lightning during launches, and declaring “go,” or “no-go” for launch.

After the Atlas-Centaur 67 rocket and payload were destroyed by triggered lightning in 1988, NASA and the Air Force 45th Weather Squadron formed the 8-member Lightning Advisory Panel (LAP) which included Dave.  For 22 years, the LAP has drawn upon results of atmospheric electricity research worldwide to understand the hazards from atmospheric electricity and to incorporate the research results into launch-day operations.  The resulting Lightning Launch Commit Criteria were adopted by NASA manned and unmanned programs, DOD, FAA, and even commercial companies and spaceports. NASA honored Dave’s work with several NASA Group Achievement Awards (see awards section in “Talks and Articles“), the NASA Robert H. Goddard Trophy: Viking Mission to Mars, and most recently, the Space Flight Awareness Team Award presented by the NASA Space Shuttle Launch Director.

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Observations test theories

HDPI preparing for launch
The HD Particle Imager is being attached to a balloon in preparation for launch.

NSSL’s fleet of mobile research facilities (excluding mobile radars) have been under Dave’s watchful eye and direction for decades.  Beginning with the mobile lab he helped build at NSSL out of an old Suburban truck in 1979, the armada now includes mobile ballooning facilities, field coordination vehicles, mobile mesonet vehicles and mobile radars.  Dave saw the value in going out to find the storms rather than waiting for them to come to NSSL.  Countless other scientists and research projects have benefited from the ability to measure temperature pressure, dew point, wind speed and direction, the electric field, and even return stroke velocities in a storm. “I get a great deal of satisfaction supporting other research,” he says.

Dave loves to be out “in the field,” and those who shared his passion for remote observations also appreciated his commitment to safety.  He made sure every vehicle was up to date on maintenance and was equipped to accomplish missions in stormy situations.  Dave’s attention to detail even included a tire gauge and flashlight in every glove compartment.

Dave endured a major setback in July, 2001 when a fire destroyed most of NSSL’s equipment storage facility, known as “the balloon barn.” A SMART-Radar, a brand new lightning mapping array system waiting to be installed, a new mobile laboratory, nine mobile mesonets, the shop, the entire collection of tools, three atmospheric sounding systems and a large inventory of balloons and radiosondes were lost.

NSSL’s Conrad Ziegler said, “Under Dave’s able leadership and with support from NSSL and NOAA OAR fire recovery funds, and the University of Oklahoma, the Field Observing Facilities Support (FOFS) team updated the mobile mesonet design, totally re-fabricated the mobile mesonet array, and had nine mobile mesonet platforms ready for the International H2O Project (IHOP) operations by the target date of May 15, 2002.  In my opinion, the recovery of the FOFS mobile facilities (combined with and on top of the normal challenges of “simply” preparing an existing mobile facility for a field experiment) was a tour-de-force example of Dave’s incredibly effective leadership and his total commitment to support collaborative scientific research with the FOFS mobile facilities.”  Dave and his FOFS team had fully recovered all NSSL’s losses from the fire in two years.

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