Alumni Profileswinter2007

Sometimes You Do Need a Weatherman . . .


Above: Chris Ruf '82 (center) works with colleagues on a NASA weather system.

Ask Chris Ruf ’82 if global warming is an authentic scientific fact or only a speculative theory, and this leading weather-satellite engineer won’t hesitate to give a direct answer.

“For all practical purposes, it’s now clear that global warming is happening, and also that it’s accelerating,” says the 48-year-old climate researcher, who has spent the past two decades helping to design and build ultra-sensitive climate- and weather- measuring systems for NASA. “There is now a preponderance of evidence that global warming is a significant worldwide phenomenon, and that it will lead to harmful consequences for the entire planet—probably beginning within the next few decades. And it will only continue to get worse if the trend isn’t slowed down or reversed.

“It’s extremely difficult to measure global trends of this kind because our [satellite] data only go back 20 years at the most, and the changes we’re tracking unfold very slowly,” Ruf continues. “But there’s no doubt that the data we do have are clear and convincing . . . . the climate event we call ‘global warming’ has now been shown to be real beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Ruf majored in physics at Reed and now teaches atmospheric sciences and electrical engineering at the University of Michigan. He frequently advises the U.S. Congress and the public about climate issues, most often through his role as an adviser to several National Academy of Sciences panels. And he directs the university’s Space Physics Research Laboratory, designing and building satellite weather-observation systems for Uncle Sam. One such device is on the way to Mercury right now; another is aboard Cassini, orbiting Saturn.

Instruments that Ruf and his colleagues have designed to go aboard NASA satellites orbiting earth, meanwhile, have been measuring global average sea level and provide “probably the best measure of global warming there is,” Ruf says. Summarizing the findings, he notes that since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century, global sea level has been rising between one and two millimeters per year. (The range of uncertainty is so wide because the measurements historically have not been very accurate.)

“The probable explanation for the rise is global warming, because warmer water expands and it also melts glaciers and ice caps,” says Ruf. “Since 1992, we have been able to measure global average sea level with satellites much more accurately. In that time, sea level has been rising about three millimeters per year. This represents a huge acceleration and a significant reduction in measurement uncertainty.” The connection between global warming and rising sea level is underscored by another key index of climate change— an astonishing 14-percent shrinkage in Arctic perennial sea ice between 2004 and 2005.

Ruf playing guitar

in 1979, Ruf played in the Portland rock band White Noise.


Ruf’s academic path has been swift and clear—he followed Reed with a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Massachusetts. But his career choice wasn’t exactly straight and narrow. In fact, he discovered his lifelong vocation while playing in a Portland rock band with his physics professor, Richard Crandall ’69 (now Howard Vollum Adjunct Professor of Science at Reed).

“The two of us were playing in White Noise at the time, doing the local circuit in downtown Portland and a lot of frat parties at Portland State,” Ruf recalls. “At one point, we decided that we wanted to design some audio electronics for the band, so we put together a bunch of sound equipment that we built from the ground up. That’s how I got the bug for hands-on electronics. Richard taught me how to build the stuff, and we did quite well for a while. We weren’t destined for stardom, but we did have fun.  We even put out an album and got a little bit of airplay in Seattle and Portland.  It was our moment of fame!”

After earning his doctorate and putting in a few years at NASA’s famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, Ruf left to become a professor in Ann Arbor. In recent years, while publishing extensively in his field and participating in several groundbreaking NASA studies, he’s won half a dozen achievement awards from the space agency.

Lee-Lueng Fu, the chief scientist on NASA’s Ocean Surface Topography, TOPEX/Poseidon, and Jason missions, says Ruf’s instruments have dramatically increased the precision of sea-level measurements from space, to an accuracy within 0.5 mm. He calls it “a remarkable accomplishment” that has allowed NASA scientists to assess with better accuracy the impact of global warming on the ocean and melting of glacier ice.

For his part, Ruf, a black-belt judo enthusiast who teaches the sport to his two young daughters in a night class, says he has begun to take global warming personally.

“I drive a hybrid automobile and I’m a big fan of that well-known saying, ‘think globally, but act locally,’” he says with quiet determination.

Ruf also says he’s “thoroughly disappointed” by the way NASA has been stinting on funding for satellite-based climate research. “After more than 20 years of work in this field, it’s pretty discouraging to see them cutting us back,” he says. “We have lost many millions of dollars for climate research in recent years, and the cuts will probably continue. NASA is spending its money on things that lack a compelling scientific purpose—such as manned space flight and space exploration—at the expense of attention to earth’s climate and weather.

“With global warming looming as a growing threat, you have to wonder a bit about the wisdom of that decision.”

—Tom Nugent