John Michael Wallace

1999 Roger Revelle Medal Winner

University of Washington, Seattle

John Michael Wallace was awarded the 1999 Roger Revelle Medal at the AGU Spring Meeting Honors Ceremony, which was held on June 2, 1999, in Boston, Massachusetts. The medal recognizes outstanding accomplishments or contributions toward an understanding of the Earth’s atmospheric processes, including its dynamics, chemistry, and radiation, or the role of atmosphere, atmosphere-ocean coupling, or atmosphere-land coupling in determining the climate, biogeochemical cycles, or other key elements of the integrated climate system.


“I have the distinct privilege of introducing the recipient of the 1999 Roger Revelle Medal, John Michael Wallace, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington. For more than three decades, Mike has been a prominent figure in diagnostic research on various atmospheric circulation systems and on the role of large-scale air-sea interaction in climate variability. His research findings, as recorded in over a hundred journal articles, have advanced our understanding of the terrestrial atmosphere on many fronts. These myriad research accomplishments are testimony to Mike’s unique genius in devising the optimal diagnostic technique for the problem at hand, uncovering simple yet elegant relationships from the best available observations, and communicating his insights eloquently to empiricists, modelers, and theoreticians alike. Mike’s genuine enthusiasm for scientific research, as well as the high standards that he sets for himself, are truly an inspiration to those of us who have been fortunate to be his collaborators.

“In the early part of his career, Mike was mainly interested in tropical phenomena. He identified the stratospheric Kelvin waves using observational data and delineated the critical role of these waves in the excitation of the quasi-biennial oscillation. He also performed innovative studies on tropospheric easterly waves and the organization of tropical convection by such waves.

“In the 1970s, Mike shifted his attention to large-scale dynamical processes in the extratropical troposphere. He demonstrated the powerful insights that could be gained from examining the full three-dimensional distribution of circulation statistics, as opposed to viewing such quantities in the traditional, longitudinally averaged framework. The key concepts developed in his works on this subject, such as local storm track/mean flow interactions and teleconnection patterns (the ‘Pacific-North American’ pattern for instance), have become cornerstones for understanding atmospheric variability on timescales ranging from a few days to a few years.

“Mike has also presented important evidence linking some of the prevalent modes of atmospheric variability to changes in the lower boundary conditions, particularly sea-surface temperature. These results have stimulated many studies on large-scale air-sea coupling related to El Niño/Southern Oscillation. In recent years, Mike has once again expanded his research portfolio by delving into the nature of decadal-scale changes of spatial modes and the implications of such variability on secular temperature trends.

“Aside from his many contributions in the research arena, Mike is also an educator of the first caliber. He has expertly and patiently guided several generations of graduate students (myself included) through the formative stages of their research careers. Through his active participation in many national and international scientific conferences, symposia, and workshops and through the widespread adaptation of the popular Wallace-Hobbs textbook by many teaching institutions, his influence on young scientists in our field extends far beyond his own department. More recently, Mike has played a key role in launching a campus-wide effort to enhance the opportunities for environmental education at the University of Washington.

“Throughout his career, Mike has selflessly dedicated his organizational skills and intellectual prowess to the service of our research community. He has participated in the planning of several international field programs and has served with distinction and integrity in various leadership roles in many institutions, including University Corporation for Atmospheric Research/National Center for Atmospheric Research, National Academy of Science/National Research Council, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Of particular note is his 20-year tenure as director of the Joint Institute for the Study of Atmosphere and Ocean at the University of Washington.

“In recognition of his outstanding achievements, Mike has been chosen as the recipient of the AGU Macelwane Medal, as well as the Meisinger Award and Rossby Medal of the American Meteorological Society. He became a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1997. I am very pleased to see the Roger Revelle Medal being added to this long list of honors.”

—NGAR-CHEUNG LAU, Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory/NOAA, Princeton University, N.J.


“I am honored to be this year’s recipient of the Revelle Medal. It has special significance for me because I had the pleasure of knowing Roger Revelle. The first time our paths crossed was in 1965 at the dedication of the Green Building, which houses the Center for Earth, Atmosphere, and Planetary Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was the keynote speaker for the event, and I was a graduate student in that large and appreciative audience. He gave an inspiring talk, stressing the need for directing our scientific research efforts toward the major problems facing human society. He was living what he preached: at that time he had recently become the first director of the Center for Population Studies at Harvard.

“Some award winners achieve that distinction by virtue of their extraordinary creative gifts, while others do so by virtue of having had the good fortune to be in the right places at the right times. I consider myself in the latter category. I acquired a love of science from two gifted and devoted schoolteachers, Sister Marita Joseph and Sister Patricia James, who taught overcrowded classes in a small high school in Westfield, Massachusetts. I learned how to do research in the department of Meteorology at MIT during its reign as the leading department in the country. While Edward Lorenz was running his now famous prediction experiments that led to the discovery of chaos, I was working just a few offices down the hall, programming the twin of his LGP-300 computer and inadvertently generating a much less illuminating form of chaos. Victor Starr mentored me in scientific writing and he, together with Jule Charney, Norm Phillips, and Fred Sanders, inspired me with the beauty and symmetry of motions on a rotating planet. I acquired much of the enthusiasm for research that Gabriel Lau alluded to from my adviser and scientific role model, Reg Newell. Without naming any names I think it’s fair to say that my MIT classmates are extremely well represented among the leaders in their respective parts of the field.

“Just a few blocks away from here, at the office of the American Meteorological Society, I had my one and only job interview. It was conducted by Phil Church, founder and first chairman of the Department of Atmospheric Science at the University of Washington. Phil and I got acquainted as he tinkered with the mechanism of the antique grandfather’s clock that the society had just acquired. After a few minutes of pleasant conversation, he asked me if I wanted a job and, after remarkably little reflection, I said ‘yes.’ Fortunately for me, Church’s department proved to be (and still is) extremely supportive of its younger faculty members, for whom success has tended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m especially appreciative of discussions and collaborations with departmental colleagues Dick Reed, Jim Holton, Peter Hobbs, and Conway Leovy that opened up new horizons to me during the early stages of my career, and with my younger colleagues Dennis Hartmann and Chris Bretherton later on.

“Just as I’ve learned from mentors and colleagues over the years, I’ve learned from working with students, and that is increasingly true as I grow older. In my experience, the best new insights have come, not in moments of solitude, but in attempts to respond to questions of students. I’ve been fortunate that my students have rarely followed my directions exactly: they’ve had a way of branching out in new directions in their research that have led to results never anticipated in the original research proposal.

Speaking of new directions, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the continuing National Science Foundation support for my research over the years, which has spared me from the excessive regimentation and report writing that characterizes so many research programs these days. Being supported by grants rather than contracts has afforded me and my students a great deal of freedom to capitalize on research opportunities, without being required to follow a prescribed ‘work plan’ leading to a set of ‘research products.’

“Finally, I’d like to thank my wife Susan whom I met here in Boston 33 years ago, for bearing the major burden of caring for our children while I was getting started in my career, for putting up with my countless Saturdays at the office, and most of all for keeping me mindful of the many dimensions of life beyond the realm of climate research.”

—JOHN MICHAEL WALLACE, University of Washington, Seattle