School of Meteorology Mourns the Passing of Dr. Doug Lilly

School of Meteorology Mourns the Passing of Dr. Doug Lilly

Earlier this week, we were saddened to learn of the passing of Dr. Douglas K. Lilly, a brilliant scientist who contributed much to weather enterprise in Norman, to the University of Oklahoma, and to the broader scientific community. On the basis of his career and the honors received, Dr. Lilly was the most distinguished scientist to have taught and conducted research at the University.

Douglas (Doug) Lilly was born on June 16, 1929 in San Francisco, California. Doug attended Stanford University and completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics in 1950. At Stanford, he was a member of the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). From 1950 to 1953 (during the Korean War) he was on active duty in the Navy, stationed in Hawaii and then later on a minesweeper off the coast of Korea. Upon leaving the service, Doug decided to pursue a graduate degree in Meteorology at Florida State University, where he met his wife Judy. In 1956, having completed his Master’s degree, Doug took a job with Radio Free Europe in Munich, Germany. His responsibilities there included prediction of wind direction and weather conditions for the purposes of launching balloons with news pamphlets into Eastern Europe during the early years of the cold war. The next summer, the Lilly family moved back to the US, and eventually returned to Tallahassee in order for Doug to complete his Ph.D. in 1958 with Dr. Seymour Hess as his main advisor. After completing the Ph.D., Doug took a position as a Research Meteorologist at the US Weather Bureau’s General Circulation Laboratory a division of NOAA in Washington, DC. During that time, Doug contributed to some of the very earliest efforts towards numerical simulation of atmospheric convection. He developed a series of numerical techniques and methods that are still used today.

In 1964, Doug took a position as a Senior Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, during the time that the famous Mesa Laboratory was being built. At NCAR, he received the honor of being designated a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society, and received the “Second Half-Century Award”, the society’s second-highest honor at the time. His research approaches spanned theory, modeling and observational approaches. While at NCAR, he published a number of seminal papers on stratocumulus clouds, turbulence, boundary layer processes, convection and downslope mountain wind storms. Doug was always fascinated by the world around him with his interest in stratus clouds coming from growing up in the Bay area of California and his interest in wind storms from his time in Boulder.

Doug was always interested in convection since his days as a student at Florida State University and in the early 1980s, Doug became interested in severe supercell convective storms. In this area, his main collaborators were Joseph Klemp, Rich Rotunno, and Tzvi Gal-Chen. Along with Tzvi Gal-Chen, Doug served as editor for a book on mesoscale meteorology (Lilly and Gal-Chen,1983) About that same time, Doug started thinking it might be time for a change in career. In 1982, Doug and Judy visited the School of Meteorology of the University of Oklahoma and decided to move to Norman to experience university life and interact with student. The Gal-Chen family moved to Norman at the same time.

At OU, Dr. Lilly’s classes and academic guidance in meteorology were well-known to students, who found in him a true Socratic teacher and committed mentor. In 1985, he was selected for the American Meteorological Society’s Carl-Gustaf Rossby Research Medal for outstanding contributions to humanity’s understanding of the structure and behavior of the atmosphere, at that time the AMS’s highest award. In 1986, Doug was also awarded one of OU’s highest honors, the George Lynn Cross Research Professorship. His style was unique, having come to teaching later in life, but students were able to experience the processes of a truly brilliant mind and great thinker. From 1992 to 1995, he held the Robert Lowry Endowed Chair in Meteorology at OU, which was the first endowed chair in Atmospheric Science in the United States. During his career, Doug supervised nineteen successful degree candidates: seven for masters and twelve for doctorate degrees.

In 1987, Doug became the Director of the OU Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies (CIMMS). During that time he published a series of papers on the numerical simulation and predictability of thunderstorms. He worked on the novel applications of helicity concepts to modeling of severe thunderstorms and on cirrus outflow dynamics. He also maintained his work in atmospheric turbulence and two-dimensional turbulence as applied to atmospheric mesoscale flow motions. Additionally, he was involved in laboratory work on simulation of atmospheric vortices.

In the late 1980s, Doug and Kelvin Droegemeier wrote one of the 11 proposals for a Science and Technology Center that were funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). This was a competitive process, with some 330 proposals being submitted for this new NSF initiative. The result was the Center for the Analysis and Prediction of Storms, of which Doug became Director in 1989. During his time at CAPS (1989–94), he was involved in many studies of severe storms and techniques to improve their simulation, including four-dimensional data assimilation and the impacts of convective storm helicity on its predictability. His contributions led to a Symons Gold Medal from the United Kingdom’s Royal Meteorological Society in 1993.

Doug continued to work in his pedagogical role during and after his appointment in CAPS. He formally retired as a Professor in the School of Meteorology in 1995, but his dedication to his graduate students led him to stay on in Norman and ensure that they completed their degrees. He took on a role part-time with the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory as a Distinguished Senior Research Scientist.

In 1999, Doug was elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The NAS is a private, non-profit, self-perpetuating society of distinguished scholars engaged in scientific and engineering research, dedicated to the furtherance of science and technology and to their use for the general welfare. The Academy has a mandate to advise the federal government on scientific and technical matters. To date, Dr. Lilly is the only scientist from the University of Oklahoma to be accorded this honor, which is considered one of the highest a scientist may achieve in their lifetime.

In 2002, Doug and Judy moved to Nebraska to be with their daughter Carol and her family. There, Doug enjoyed his many interests and hobbies and stayed current in scientific reading and research as long as his health allowed. His influence inspired many, even resulting in a book: Atmospheric Turbulence and Mesoscale Meteorology: Scientific Research Inspired by Doug Lilly* (Fedorovich, Rotunno, Stevens, 2004). The book’s editors also conducted a symposium at NCAR in the summer of 2004 to celebrate the book and more importantly, Dr. Lilly’s legacy.

Doug Lilly was a world-renown leader in meteorology, a scientific pioneer, a mentor, a visionary, and a pillar to the School of Meteorology. His contributions will not be forgotten.


*This article made extensive use of the biography of Dr. Lilly found in the book’s preface; used with permission from Dr. Evgeni Fedorovich. Dr. Lilly’s obituary can be found here.