Peter J. Lamb

- 2014

The “Climate Revolution” (Lamb 2002), occupying the last quarter of the 20th century, lost its standard-bearer in Dr. Pete Lamb, who unexpectedly passed away at his home in Norman, Oklahoma, on May 28th, 2014. For the most recent two decades, Pete was George Lynn Cross Research Professor of Meteorology, and also Director of the NOAA Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies (CIMMS) in the College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences at the University of Oklahoma, where he played a pivotal role integrating climate science and operational meteorology. Pete Lamb’s Ph.D. was in Meteorology from the University of Wisconsin- Madison (UWM), and his B.A. and M.A. degrees were both in Geography from the University of Canterbury (UC) in Christchurch, New Zealand. Pete exemplified the tradition of world-class geographer-climatologists out of New Zealand who migrated to American academia in the 1970s and 1980s. Throughout his almost 40 year career—first as a lecturer in Geography at the University of Adelaide (AU, South Australia), then as visiting research scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies (CIMAS) in Miami, followed by long-term positions at the Illinois State Water Survey (ISWS, Champaign-Urbana) and CIMMS—Pete mentored and worked with many geographers; not just in climatology but in economic geography and nature-society studies, He combined the meteorologist’s understanding of the physics and mathematics of fluid flow in the atmosphere with the geographer’s perspective on climate as the result of atmospheric interactions with Earth’s surface properties and human activities. Pete’s research interests recently had broadened even further to include sustainability and climate policy, but always with the same goal in mind: to advance scientific knowledge about climate for the betterment of society—whether in Morocco, Brazil, China, West Africa, Illinois, or Oklahoma.

I became Pete Lamb’s first Masters degree student, upon his arrival at AU’s Department of Geography in austral spring 1976. It has always seemed to me far more than my good luck in this synchrony of Pete’s tenure at AU and my Masters program: it was somehow cosmically ordained! In public addresses given by Pete in recent years, he would emphasize that luck “is where preparation meets opportunity”. However, where Pete Lamb was my uncommon opportunity to engage in climatological research, there was still much preparation to be accomplished over the 2 years that I was his student! In that role, I wanted for nothing; he was a thesis advisor and so much more, teaching me lessons in life as well as preparing me for my career as a scientist and academic. It was Pete Lamb who first taught me—and many others over the years—how to write scientifically and be published. We can recount receiving back the successive multiple drafts of our written documents, each one richly decorated with a hierarchy of annotations in red and blue ink! However, Pete’s criticism of our work was always constructive and well-intentioned; he wanted, above all else, for us to succeed and to be our best.

Pete Lamb did not just mentor junior scientists like myself; he championed us, and usually for long after we graduated. Speaking personally again, he was always a better promoter of my work than I, and continually looked for ways to focus my talents on an emerging area of climatological research. The development of the first satellite-based spatial climatology of jet contrails (for determining their potential impacts on climate), was actually initiated by Pete in 1984, while at ISWS. Our resulting joint publications are part of the record of what scientists now know to be the quite significant impact of aviation cirrus on the climate, and an example of Pete Lamb’s prescient vision for research.

Pete Lamb’s passion for rugby was well known: he played it as an undergraduate, and was an avid supporter of the New Zealand All-Blacks team. For Pete, rugby was also a metaphor for pursuing one’s life and career—with full-on enthusiasm and dedication, strength of purpose, and an overarching strategy. It was evident, for example, in his fearlessness in advocating for those in whom he felt a moral obligation to see succeed, and in showing his advisees and those he mentored how to successfully engage the rough-and-tumble that can sometimes be the Academy. As such, Pete Lamb embodied the ideal that the scientific enterprise is stronger when it is not the preserve of a self-selecting few, but when it is tackled by scholars from multiple disciplines possessing diverse perspectives. For climate science this means meteorologists and atmospheric scientists, yes, but also geographers (both human and physical), economists, social scientists, and even those from the humanities. Much of this breadth derives from Pete’s undergraduate training in Geography. His published Masters thesis research on the role of the New Zealand Alps’ föhn winds in the surface heat budget of the Canterbury Plain (under David Greenland’s direction), combined the spatial and integrative emphases of our discipline with physical meteorology, in the then-quite new sub-discipline of process-based “geographical climatology”. Geographical climatology became an important part of the larger Climate Revolution, which Pete Lamb both epitomized and helped inaugurate. His published doctoral research on the roles of tropical Atlantic sea surface temperatures and atmospheric circulation in sub-Saharan rainfall variations and trends (under Stefan Hastenrath), is pure geographical climatology even as it fulfilled part of a meteorology degree! High-resolution atlases of the tropical ocean-atmosphere heat budget were products of Pete’s post-doctoral research at UWM (co-authored with Hastenrath), and are still widely cited by both climate scientists and oceanographers. Not unexpectedly, given his Geography training, Pete Lamb had his heroes in geographical climatology: the late Hubert Lamb (no relation), the late Ken Hare, and Roger Barry, who became my Ph.D. advisor… no coincidence there! The fact that these icons’ work emphasizes larger spatial scales showed Pete’s innate recognition of the importance of atmospheric circulation systems and scale interactions in climatic processes and patterns.

Pete Lamb’s major and sustained contributions to climate variability and contemporary climate change studies involved particularly the following areas: (1) Precipitation variability in Northern Hemisphere Africa since 1940; (2) Surface climate and oceanic heat budgets of the eastern Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans; (3) Seasonal-to-interannual precipitation variability in North America east of the Rocky Mountains; and (4) The use and value of climate information—especially seasonal predictions—for U.S. agriculture. In much of this research, Pete worked with a number of geographers and “honorary geographers”, including Randy Peppler, Mike Richman, Mary Petersen, Diane Portis, Ken Kunkel, Steven Sonka, Neville Nichols, and Martin Williams. Peer-reviewed journals in which his research appeared—often more than once—included Nature, Progress in Physical Geography, Journal of Physical Oceanography, Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences, Journal of Climate, Climatic Change, Atmosphere-Ocean, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (AMS), Monthly Weather Review, American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Agricultural Systems, and many others. The importance of Pete’s published research in improving our understanding of regional climate variability, predictability, and applications, was formally recognized in 2002 when he was awarded a Doctor of Science (D.Sc.) degree from UC.

Over the years, Pete Lamb was active in a range of national and international science organizations and committees. It was largely due to his efforts that the AMS launched its highly successful Journal of Climate in 1988; he was the “essentially founding” Chief Editor, a position he held through mid-1995. Many geographer-climatologists have brought their research to the wider climate science community through publication in J. Climate. While an elected member of AMS Council, Pete helped bring the landmark 2012 AMS Statement on Climate Change to completion and final approval. As he related to me this past April, barely five weeks before his untimely passing, this achievement required all his persistence and gentle persuasion to reach common ground! Shortly before his death, Pete had been made Vice Chair (and effectively Chair Elect) of the Council of Institutions of the Universities Space Research Association. At that time also, he was a member of the AMS Publications Committee, comprising geographers as well as meteorologists; itself another testament to Pete’s critical role in the Climate Revolution.

Of Pete Lamb’s auspicious career, I would summarize it thus: A consummate scientist who also worked for global society’s betterment by researching critical questions in climate dynamics, and who helped many others fulfill their academic and professional goals by emphasizing their strengths and making irrelevant their weaknesses. In all this, Pete maintained an uncommon modesty. The last sentence of his D.Sc. thesis is telling: “To have had the good fortune to participate in the early stages of the climate revolution has been a privilege and a pleasure. Indeed, it has been a lot of fun.” With Pete’s untimely passing, I have lost my strongest cheer-leader, contemporary geographical-climatology has lost a trailblazer, and climate science has lost a leading light. Notwithstanding, Pete Lamb’s many legacies will endure.


Lamb, P.J. 2002. The climate revolution: a perspective. An editorial essay. Climatic Change 54:1-9.