In 52 years with CSU, Thomas Vonder Haar has taken atmospheric science to new heights

Vonder Haar posing for a 2005 photo with a CIRA satellite dish in the background.
Thomas Vonder Haar is pictured with CIRA satellite dishes in 2005. Vonder Haar founded CIRA, a partnership with NOAA, in 1980.

University Distinguished Professor Emeritus Thomas Vonder Haar’s 52-year career at Colorado State University has had many high points – both figurative and literal.

As chair of the Department of Atmospheric Science, he led the graduate program to its ranking as one of the top three in the U.S., and as the founding director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere, he oversaw satellite research and a NASA mission.

Engineering Source recently sat down with Vonder Haar to look at his astonishing career.

Vonder Haar’s interest in meteorology took off when he got his pilot’s license at 19 and accelerated in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin under the guidance of Verner Suomi, who is considered the father of satellite meteorology. Since then, Vonder Haar has made CSU a recognized leader in satellite meteorology.

Participating in Northern Colorado’s emergence as a nexus for science and technology has been most satisfying as he looks back on decades of remarkable accomplishments as a researcher, educator and leader in the field. This has been his goal since joining CSU in 1970.

Early on, Vonder Haar forged partnerships with the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He collaborated on satellite programs with NOAA, NASA, Ball Aerospace in Boulder and Raytheon in Aurora. He co-founded “spinoff” companies METSAT and ASTER with university colleagues to apply research results to special environmental problems.

The three past directors of CIRA pose with the current director in front of the CIRA building. From left, Christian Kummerow, Graeme Stephens, Thomas Vonder Haar, and current CIRA director Steven Miller.
CIRA has had four directors since its founding in 1980. They are, from left to right, Christian Kummerow, Graeme Stephens, Thomas Vonder Haar and current director Steven Miller, pictured in May 2022.

In 1980, Vonder Haar founded CIRA to merge satellite observations, display technology and computer modeling with the climate and weather forecasting research needs of NOAA, the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Park Service. He directed the cooperative institute for 28 years. NOAA renewed its partnership with CIRA in 2019 with a $128 million award.

CIRA has advanced technology to improve global climate observations and storm forecasting and detection, while supporting hundreds of CSU graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. It has been a model for successful university-government partnerships.

“The future of cooperative research institutes looks promising as more university-federal-private sector collaborations are emerging to meet environmental and societal challenges,” Vonder Haar said.

Rising to the top

Vonder Haar served as atmospheric science department head from 1974-1984. During that time, the department became one of the top-rated graduate programs of its kind. He credits teamwork and hiring strong faculty for the department’s success.

“The principal job of a department head is to help bring in new, well-qualified faculty,” Vonder Haar said. “With the help of the whole team, we brought in some very good people.”

That included high-quality graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Vonder Haar advised and mentored about 150 grad students and postdocs over the years.

“The students I advised and their wide spectrum of research interests were always highlights of my work,” he said.

A storied career

Vonder Haar has served on five NASA science teams and led NASA’s Earth Radiation Budget Experiment that launched three satellites to begin continuously collecting data on Earth’s radiation budget. His involvement in ERBE and other projects made him a pioneer in the use of satellite meteorology, and his research in interpreting and analyzing data from satellites laid the groundwork for understanding and describing the world’s climate processes.

This expertise has led to invitations to lecture on six continents. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a fellow of the American Geophysical Union, and a fellow and honorary member of the American Meteorological Society. He has served on numerous international science commissions and advisory groups of the World Meteorological Organization of the United Nations and the International Council of Scientific Unions.

He co-authored the book, Satellite Meteorology: An Introduction, with former Ph.D. student and colleague Stan Kidder, based on a graduate class they taught together. It received a critics choice award and is still used worldwide.

Vonder Haar was named a University Distinguished Professor in 1995. Since semi-retiring in 2016, he has focused on leading small research projects in the department and CIRA, as well as activities with the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. He also lectures on the history of satellite meteorology and lessons learned from his 50-plus years in the field.

Change has been a constant

A black and white photo of Vonder Haar in his office in 1979
Thomas Vonder Haar, pictured here in 1979, headed the Department of Atmospheric Science from 1974-1984. During that time, the program earned its reputation as one of the top three atmospheric science programs in the U.S.

When Vonder Haar joined the University, few computers could be found on campus. Today CSU underpins a high-tech hub.

He has watched the department nearly double in size, but its ability to remain at the forefront of the field has been a constant.

“The thread has been continued change to meet new scientific and societal needs of Colorado, the nation and the world,” Vonder Haar said.

His advice on how to handle change: “Welcome it with the same high standards of the past.”