Roger Daley

Atmospheric Science

Principal constructor of the Canadian numerical weather forecasting system

"Don’t worry if you have not made a choice of career. It can come anytime from grade school to graduate school. But for a career in the natural sciences get a good foundation in math."

It’s 1966. Roger Daley is working at the United States Air Force base in Goose Bay, Labrador, on apprenticeship for the Canadian Weather Service. Daley is lonely, spending a lot of time by himself in his humble room in the barracks. It’s cold and there’s not much to do. The smell of jet fuel is everywhere and the Delta Dagger Interceptors and KC-135 tankers that refuel B-52 bombers in flight roar overhead at all hours of the day and night.

Daley decides to try an experiment. Working alone in his room at night, he makes up little blue cards for all the American pilots to fill out while flying missions in the area. The pilots have to write down things like dates, times, temperatures, altitudes, wind directions, wind velocities and their own general impression of the “bumpiness” of the flight. To Daley, the air is like an ocean of flowing currents and bubbles of different gasses constantly jostling about. It’s a fluid like water, but much thinner.

When the cards start coming in, he spends a lot of time poring over maps spread out on his bed late at night, entering the information from the cards onto the maps to get a picture of this ocean of air around him — the atmosphere. Partly out of curiosity and partly just to have something to do, he takes the information and works out some mathematical formulas that relate the complicated interactions of winds, temperatures, altitudes and other factors that create atmospheric turbulence, the “bumpy” feeling you get in airplanes sometimes.

The pilots are very interested and cooperative because they “live” in this ocean of air, and knowing the patterns of upper-level turbulence along the Labrador coast will help them fly more safely.

They start hanging around Daley’s room and talking about the air in which they fly. He realizes he loves this research and, though he never publishes these results, he decides to go back to university to get a degree in meteorology, the science of weather. But the government of Canada had paid for Daley’s training as a weather forecaster and in return he had to go wherever the government sent him. That’s how he ended up in Goose Bay, and he had to work as a weather forecaster for two years.


Then he attended McGill University in Montreal to get a doctorate (PhD) in meteorology. After that he spent some time in Copenhagen, Denmark, doing more research on the mathematics of wind patterns. From 1972 to 1978 he worked at the Canadian Meteorological Centre in Montreal. While there, he headed a research group that developed mathematical techniques called spectral transforms, using them to create computer programs that could predict the weather for about three days ahead. Launched in 1976, it was the first operational global computer weather-modelling system in the world.

These numerical descriptions of the atmosphere (or variations of them) form the basis of virtually all forecasting and long-term climate simulations in use everywhere in the world to this day, including at the United States Navy’s Fleet Numerical Meteorological and Oceanographic Center (FNMOC) in Monterey, California.


In 1978 Daley took on the job of senior scientist at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, perhaps the world’s leading atmospheric research centre. There he worked on numerous outstanding and difficult problems in global weather modelling, using mathematics and computers. In 1985 he went back to Canada to become chief scientist at the Canadian Climate Centre in Downsview, Ontario, where he worked for 10 years. In 1991 he wrote a book on atmospheric data analysis, which is considered by many to be the classic book on atmospheric modelling. Daley’s last project in Canada involved the estimation of atmospheric wind fields based on satellite measurements of minor atmospheric chemical constituents; in other words, he was using information from satellites to track winds in the upper atmosphere.

Throughout his life, Daley was in great demand all over the world and contributed to weather forecasting projects in France, Sweden and China. He was a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the group of scientists who in 1991 issued a cautious warning about global warming as a result of rising carbon dioxide emissions from the use of fossil fuels.

In 1995 Daley accepted a position in Monterey, California, at the Marine Meteorology Division of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, to help develop an advanced shipboard forecasting system for United States Navy ships. The system, called the Navy Atmospheric Variational Data Assimilation System, or NAVDAS, became operational at Monterey for testing purposes around 1998, but Daley died of a heart attack in 2001 before he could see it implemented fleetwide.

As a young scientist ...


Daley’s family moved to Canada while he was young, and he grew up in West Vancouver with the Coast Mountains as his backyard. He climbed and skied and at one point his family lived on a small island just offshore from West Vancouver, so he spent a lot of time by the sea and in the family boat. His best subject in high school was history, but he was always good at mathematics. He never wanted to be a research scientist. He wanted to do something useful that related to “normal” life. In grade 12 he had no intention of studying science.


The Science