Meet Harold Brooks
Sharing Discoveries about some of the most Powerful Weather Systems on Earth
Harold Brooks, Ph.D., leads the Modeling, Observation and Analysis Team at the NOAA National Severe Storms Lab in Norman, Okla. With a goal of providing people with the knowledge they need to make better decisions about hazardous weather, he focuses his research on determining the distribution of severe thunderstorm hazards around the world and on evaluating weather forecasts. He gives frequent talks about his work at international scientific meetings and has given many interviews to the news media about hazardous weather.
Originally from St. Louis, Mo., Brooks received a Ph.D. in atmospheric science in 1990 from the University of Illinois. He joined NSSL in 1991 as a research meteorologist. He received the Department of Commerce Silver Medal in 2002 and has received three NOAA Research Outstanding Paper Awards. He also received the NOAA Administrator's Award in 2007 and was elected a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society in 2010.
Why is your research important?
Tornadoes and other severe thunderstorms are a significant threat to life and property in the United States. I hope the things that we learn about how they behave and what we can do to get people to respond in good ways will reduce their toll.
What do you do to share your passion about research with broader audiences?
I do a large number of interviews trying to explain how we learn and what we’ve learned. I also give talks about my work to non-specialist audiences.
What do you enjoy the most about your work?
The great thing about being a scientist is that you get to discover things no one has ever known before and then let other people know about it. You get to look for important questions and answer them.
Where do you do most of your work? In a lab? In field studies?
I spend most of my time in my office. I dig through data on my computer looking for answers.
What in your lab could you not live without?
The most important thing is the people you get to interact with. At the National Severe Storms Laboratory, we have a unique environment: forecasters from the National Weather Service, students and faculty from the University of Oklahoma School of Meteorology, and the staff from the Oklahoma Climatological Survey provide constant sources of research problems and opportunities to discuss understanding.
When did you know you wanted to pursue science?
I knew that science was for me in high school. Science just seemed interesting, easy, and natural.
What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science?
That’s a really hard question. There are so many directions to go. I’m a big fan of history, actually, and I’d recommend two books from there. One is Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, a biography of Meriwether Lewis, chronicling the Lewis and Clark exploration where, much like a scientist, they were learning things that no one they knew had any idea about, as well as Lewis’s struggles after the expedition. The second book is John Barry’s Rising Tide, the story of the great 1927 Mississippi River flood, with all of the decisions over the years that made the flood worse and the societal implications of environmental disasters.
What part of your job as a NOAA scientist did you least expect to be doing?
I never expected to be doing as much interacting with the media. Attempting to pass along information to the public via the media is an interesting challenge.
Do you have an outside hobby?
I work with volleyball. I referee high school and juniors (12-18 year old) club volleyball and line judge college volleyball. I’ve filled in as the public address announcer for Oklahoma Sooner volleyball, and in 2010, I supervised courts (making sure the court and the teams were ready for matches and introducing the teams) at the World Sitting Volleyball Championships.
What would you be doing if you had not become a scientist?
I’d like to think I’d have become a historian, although I know that I’ve gotten more interested in history since I became a scientist. I particularly love military and medieval European history.
Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?
Alfred Wegener. Like me, Wegener was interested in and wrote about historical tornadoes. Wegener is also an object lesson for any scientist. He wrote a history of European history, but it came out during World War I, so most of the world outside of Germany didn’t see it. During his lifetime, he was best-known for this theory of tornadogenesis, which was overturned decades after he died. The thing he’s known for now, continental drift, was rejected during his lifetime. His career is a reminder that you can do important work but not have it accepted, and that you can think you’ve done something great and be completely wrong.
Watch a YouTube video interview with Harold Brooks and Russ Schneider, director of the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center.