Robert E. Dickinson

1996 Roger Revelle Medal Winner

University of Arizona, Tucson

The 1996 Roger Revelle Medal, given by AGU in recognition of sustained and continued superior contributions to the science of climate dynamics and to predictions of expected climate changes, was presented to Robert Dickinson at the AGU Fall Meeting Honor Ceremony December 17, 1996, in San Francisco, Calif. The award citation and Dickinson’s response are given here.


“We have a tendency to divide the members of our scientific community into those whose strength lies in their vision and those whose contributions stem from a focus on getting the details right. We also frequently advise young scientists that too great a breadth in their scientific endeavors results in a lack of depth and minimizes real scientific impact. Robert Dickinson really defies these views.

His genius is reflected by a great breadth of accomplishment and by remarkable depth. His papers provide example after example of great attention to the details and complexities of a problem while pioneering whole new areas of investigation. Bob’s research spans the areas of assessment of future climate change, biometeorology and vegetation-climate interaction, remote sensing of the Earth’s surface, upper atmosphere research, polar climates, aerosols and biomass burning, the general circulation of the atmosphere, the atmosphere of Venus, and the climate of the early Earth.

“The citation of a few examples clearly illustrates Bob’s tremendous contributions. Bob is a leader in general circulation model development and the use of these models to assess future climate change.

His efforts range from examination of the effects of stratospheric chemistry such as CFCs, to global change due to human-induced increases in atmospheric trace gases, to modeling cloud multiple reflections, as well as an early examination of ocean-atmosphere coupling. He has also contributed to the characterization of polar processes through definition of the limits of ice-albedo feedback.

His contributions to understanding the general circulation of the atmosphere include early descriptions of planetary wave zonal flow interaction, tidal theory, zonal winds in the tropics, and orographic effects on the general circulation.

“Bob has been a true pioneer in biometeorology and vegetation-climate interactions. His development of the Biosphere-Atmosphere Transfer Scheme (BATS) model for climate models stands as the first and most detailed effort to include the role of vegetation in climate models. BATS or its subsets have now been included in numerous GCMs and mesoscale models. The remarkable depth of this pioneering effort followed Bob’s interest in determining the climate impact of tropical deforestation.

This is a clear example of his ability to focus on a whole new line of investigation in order to address an important research topic. Bob’s interest in vegetation-climate interactions has also lead to a focus on the remote sensing of the biosphere and leadership in the International Satellite Land Surface Climatology Project (ISLSCP).

“Bob’s collaborative research effort to determine the impact of aerosols derived from biomass burning on the radiation budget earned him special recognition. He has also made a number of noteworthy contributions to our understanding of the upper atmosphere through research on the dynamics of the thermosphere and mesosphere and the impact of changes in upper atmosphere and stratospheric chemistry. Bob’s research interests have also extended to other planets, including significant enhancement of our understanding of the circulation of the atmosphere of Venus. He also contributed to our understanding of the climate of the early (Archean) Earth. Only an individual of considerable talent could contribute so much to atmospheric sciences and geophysics in so many areas.

“Bob’s research efforts are matched by a commitment to the success of our discipline. In addition to ISLSCP, he plays a leadership role in NASA’s Earth Observing System, in the modeling element (GAIM) of the International Geosphere Biosphere Program, and in the World Climate Research Program’s GEWEX effort. He was chair of the National Research Council’s Climate Research Committee and is past President of the Atmospheric Sciences Section of AGU. He has served as Editor of the Journal of Climate and as a member of the editorial board of several other scholarly publications.

“His contributions to science have been widely recognized. In 1993, he was named Regent’s Professor at the University of Arizona. He is the recipient of both the Charney Award and the Meisinger Awards of the American Meteorological Society. He has been named Fellow of the AGU, the AMS, and the AAAS. In 1988, he was named a member of the National Academy of Science.

“In many ways, Robert Dickinson is best described as highly directed genius on multiple paths of accomplishment and achievement. Certainly, as a community we can easily recognize both the breadth and depth of his contributions. By awarding the Revelle Medal to Bob, AGU continues the high standard that has been set for this medal, ensuring that the Revelle Medal commends the very highest excellence in the atmospheric sciences. Bob has my highest possible regard and my deepest gratitude for his contributions and commitment. It is my great pleasure to nominate him for the AGU Revelle Medal. I feel certain that he is most deserving of this prestigious award.”

—ERIC J. BARRON, Pennsylvania State University, University Park.


“I am very grateful to be receiving this medal here tonight. Such an occasion promotes contemplation of the forces in a career that lead to the achievements being recognized. Eric’s generous citation covers my whole career, and he points out that I have looked at questions over a range of individual topics. Perhaps my most profound personal insight is that this has all been a response to the dynamics of exchanging ideas with the large number of people with whom I have interacted over the course of my career.

“A major direction for several years after my Ph.D. was the combined influence of the teachers I had at MIT. I gained a strong sense of the beauty of global atmospheric processes from my advisor, Victor Starr, and a keen interest in pursuing analytic descriptions of atmospheric dynamical processes from Jule Charney and several members of the MIT applied math faculty and the more mathematically inclined meteorology faculty. I also gained some profound insights into the issue of atmospheric critical levels from a lecture presented by a young Johns Hopkins professor named Francis Bretherton. These interests were reinforced because of the influence of several classmates and friends, including Jim Holten, Dick Lindzen, and a fellow postdoc at MIT, Jack Geisler.

“In the early 1970s I moved into two different research areas, largely owing to the high degree of enthusiasm of two postdocs who started working with me at NCAR. The first was Ray Roble, who had done an observational thesis at Michigan with Andy Nagy on the thermosphere and wanted to back it up with some dynamical modeling. This led to a long collaborative development of numerical modeling of the terrestrial and planetary thermospheres. Much of the time this was too easy for me because most of the hard work always seemed to get done by Ray with the marvelous talents of our programmer, Cicily Ridley. All I had to do was suggest some of the questions to look at and help revise the papers.

“The second area was climate. It was impossible to resist the convictions of Steve Schneider that this was a profoundly important human issue that needed a much larger institutional, national, and international effort than existed at that time. We did a major review paper together that had a significant impact on further developments in the field at that time. We also published a small quantitative paper involving cloud albedos that Steve still remembers as the last time he did any FORTRAN code himself. Perhaps Steve’s greatest contribution to my thinking was the realization that the climate question could only be addressed through interdisciplinary collaborations not only with physical scientists in other areas such as oceanography and hydrology, but also with biological and social scientists, and that international institutions were important in promoting these collaborations. These convictions have cost me a fair amount of my total time and resources as a result of my extensive participation in committees and interdisciplinary review activities. These convictions also gave me my appreciation of how important AGU is. Steve convinced me of the importance of the three-dimensional GCM numerical simulation approach to climate modeling; we argued in our review that a “hierarchy of climate modeling approaches was essential” from simple one-dimensional models to complex three-dimensional ones, a concept that still is often heard repeated, as Peter Stone reminded me a few weeks ago.

“With some invaluable mentoring from Chuck Leith, Akira Kasahara, and Warren Washington, and in part because I was, for a short time, administratively responsible for that part of NCAR’s climate research, I forayed into actually working with GCMs. Playing with the code convinced me that the treatment of land was the weakest part in the model, and I discovered that nobody else had any better treatments of land. I learned much about vegetation and soils on my own, but conversations with David Gates and Tony Federer were especially influential in guiding my thinking about what was needed to represent the role of vegetation in a climate model, and suggestions and a published paper from Jim Deardorff at NCAR gave me a good starting point.

“Much of the further impetus for my work on representing land in climate models came from visitors, Ann Henderson-Sellers and her students and younger colleagues being the most influential pilgrims to NCAR. Among other things, Ann gave me the acronym “BATS” that Eric mentioned. She had intended it as a joke, but since it was better than anything I could ever come up with, I adopted it.

“Although many, many other people and issues have influenced me through the years, I will just say that almost any science I do today still comes from the collaborations I have with colleagues, some of whom are students, and I would like to personally thank all of my past and current sources of inspiration, more than a few of whom are here today.”

—ROBERT E. DICKINSON, University of Arizona, Tucson