Rick Katz becomes NCAR’s latest Senior Scientist Emeritus

By Brian Bevirt
10/28/2014 - 12:00am

Rick Katz gained Emeritus status this year as a Senior Scientist and founding member of NCAR’s Geophysical Statistics Project. (GSP is now in IMAGe, CISL’s math institute.) A fall celebration honoring his new role in CISL attracted many colleagues from his long and successful career. They recounted numerous stories about Rick’s contributions to the advancement of meteorology through the careful application of statistics. Rick has just completed 35 years of service at NCAR.

Rick Katz

At the celebration of his emeritus status held at NCAR’s Mesa Lab, Rick (at left in the foreground) and his renowned colleagues recounted a variety of anecdotes from his career.

Rick didn’t grow up wanting to be a statistician, his first interest was meteorology. As a child he was fascinated by the weather, and he maintained two instruments at his home in Virginia. He recorded daily temperatures with a thermometer and precipitation with a rain gauge. But when it snowed, he had to melt it to determine its moisture content. While returning the meltwater to the rain gauge for measurement, he realized that his process introduced errors into his record. And he began to wonder how official records were made and controlled for quality.

His family used Farmer’s Almanac calendars that offered daily predictions about temperature and precipitation. At an early age, Rick wondered how those predictions could be made so far in advance and how accurate they were. So he tracked the skill of those predictions by comparing them to his daily records, and the seeds for his life as a statistician were sown. But first the path of his career required a diversion into abstract higher mathematics.

Rick’s natural aptitude for mathematics encouraged his interest in abstract math to grow during his secondary education. He earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Mathematics at the University of Virginia, where he read Darrell Huff’s popular 1954 book about statistics, and another seed for his career was sown. For his graduate work, Rick chose Pennsylvania State University in part because they offered strong programs in both meteorology and statistics. There he earned his Ph.D. in statistics through four years of study that combined his interests in both disciplines. Jobs that needed his ideas for using statistics to advance meteorology were scarce, however, so Rick took a job as a statistician at NOAA’s Center for Climatic and Environmental Assessment.

By the early 1970s, a small group of NCAR researchers was studying the environmental and societal impacts of weather modification. At that time, there was strong national interest in hail suppression and in enhancing rainfall for agriculture and snowfall in the mountains to support crop irrigation. Rick and some like-minded researchers at NCAR were thinking about the repercussions of those efforts being successful: how weather modification might influence the balance of the ecosystem and how it could affect the lives of people beyond the targeted areas.

While still a graduate student, Rick traveled to Boulder, Colorado for an American Meteorological Society conference where he saw a poster announcing postdoc positions in NCAR’s Advanced Study Program. The weather and climate research communities had begun forming groups to study economic and societal impacts, and Rick found people at NCAR who shared his growing interest in this area. After one year in his first job as a statistician, Rick came to NCAR in 1975 to work as a postdoc and collaborate with scientists in the newly formed Environmental and Societal Impacts Group on a project investigating the impacts of hailstorms on crop yields. He then published a related article, “Assessing the impact of climatic change on food production,” in Volume 1 Issue 1 of Climatic Change. He went on to serve on the editorial board of that journal for decades, and through the years he provided extensive ongoing editorial services to six other research journals as well as several proposal review panels.

Of his numerous awards, Rick feels particular satisfaction from the 2010 Achievement Award he received from the International Meetings on Statistical Climatology “to recognize his applications of statistics to quantifying variability and extremes in climate and his promotion of collaboration between atmospheric and statistical scientists.” Part of the award states: “Even fifteen years ago the connection between statistics and the geosciences was a tenuous one held together by a few strong researchers and practitioners. At NCAR, Rick Katz stood out as the lone Ph.D. statistician and a voice for the role of modern statistics in tackling problems in climate science. Rick, along with Rol Madden, Joe Tribbia and Kevin Trenberth, started the Geophysical Statistics Project at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in 1993. Over time it has created a whole new generation of statistical researchers with an appreciation of geoscience and an enthusiasm for collaboration on substantial scientific problems.”

Rick Katz's colleagues

Some of Rick’s colleagues who participated in his Emeritus ceremony include (from left) Marc Parlange (University of British Columbia), Balaji Rajagopalan (University of Colorado at Boulder), Arthur Mizzi (NCAR Atmospheric Chemistry Division), Rick Katz, Doug Nychka (NCAR IMAGe), Claudia Tebaldi (NCAR Climate and Global Dynamics Division), and Eric Gilleland (NCAR Research Applications Laboratory).

Throughout his career, Rick was repeatedly drawn to promising new areas of investigation, often delving into research topics years before their value received full appreciation from the mainstream community. Such early forays into potentially beneficial research include:

  • His mid-1970s applications of statistics to distinguish the effects of seasonal weather impacts on crop yields from the effects of advancing agricultural technologies.
  • Starting in the late 1970s, his use of techniques from statistics, management science, and operations research to quantify the economic value of imperfect forecasts of weather and climate.
  • His early 1980s work to simulate wind power generation.
  • His career-long efforts to understand and predict the impacts of extremes in weather and climate through applying the statistical theory of extreme values.

Almost all of Rick’s early work proved to be innovative, was used in practical applications, and continues to receive ongoing interest by other researchers.

In his career, Rick has taught young statisticians as well as researchers from atmospheric science and related disciplines through 16 different teaching and lecturing appointments in seven countries, mentored 14 interns, student visitors, and Ph.D. candidates, organized 8 conferences and workshops, and filled 15 different roles providing additional services to the research community. His productivity is also reflected by the 20 research grants he was awarded and by his prolific publications: 92 journal articles, 3 books, 17 chapters in others’ books, 6 book reviews, 14 research reports, and 49 contributions to conference proceedings. In his talk at the emeritus celebration, Marc Parlange noted that one of Rick’s review papers on extremes has the second highest citation rate in the history of a leading hydrology journal.

Finally, Rick has been a distance runner and mountain climber throughout his whole career, and he fondly recalls how running and trekking with collaborators benefited their ability to develop creative solutions to the problems they encountered. For example, during his time in Switzerland, all his colleagues spoke only in French while they were running together, and this added level of intellectual stimulation combined with their elevated physiologies to produce some particularly rewarding insights. Among Rick’s many running accomplishments are his seven victories in NCAR’s annual two-kilometer race up the steep Mesa Lab hill during the years 1980 to 2005. His 7:32 time in 1989 was a close second when the late Andrew Crook set the still-standing course record. His finishing times continue to be impressive, and he clocked a 10:31 this August, just before his 66th birthday.

NCAR, CISL, and IMAGe recognize and appreciate the variety and ongoing significance of Rick’s contributions to our national center, supercomputing laboratory, and applied mathematics institute.