Where we’ve been and where we’re going: CIMMS set a precedent 40 years ago and continues growing its mission

Numerical weather models, Doppler radar, quantified precipitation estimates. These are all words that can be heard within the National Weather Center, a building created to foster severe weather research and innovation. But what if entities within the building never existed?

Brick and mortar house the largest research entity at the University of Oklahoma. The University of Oklahoma’s Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies fosters symbiotic relationships between the university and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The institute, known as CIMMS, was created in 1978 the way most things are created – by a person with a dream.

Setting a precedent

Inman providing a tour of radars on north base. (Photo from Sooner Magazine)

Rex Inman met Bill Smith at a scientific conference. Smith was the founder of the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies in Wisconsin in 1976. Inman wanted that for the university and it just so happened it also housed the federal National Severe Storms Laboratory.

The partnership was easy. Inman worked with NSSL Director Edwin Kessler while utilizing his position as director of the School of Meteorology.

CIMMS was created through an OU and NOAA cooperative agreement in 1978. It shared space with the school in OU’s former engineering laboratory building.

“Cooperative Institutes have many advantages,” said Jeff Kimpel, former NSSL director and former School of Meteorology chair. “CIMMS got off to an early start with some NOAA and OU funding and good things happened — students and faculty were supported, research was supported and things got done. CIMMS really, really helped collaboration between NSSL and OU, particularly the School of Meteorology. CIMMS was the bridge.”

The relationships between the university and the laboratory established a precedent for government-university collaboration while providing jobs for students. NSSL was the first government laboratory for severe storms and the Oklahoma Board of Regents emphasized the need for growth in the meteorology department in the late 1970s and early ‘80s

CIMMS set a precedent and was one of the first research groups in meteorology at the University of Oklahoma.

Inman didn’t serve as director long and passed the torch to Yoshi Sasaki in 1980.


Sasaki in his office in the engineering laboratory building.
Sasaki in his office in the engineering laboratory building. (Photo provided)

Growing pains

Sasaki was instrumental in developing OU’s meteorology program and strengthening the tie with the institute’s federal partners and international organizations.

CIMMS had outgrown the cramped laboratory space it shared with the school. The organization continued to add researchers, grant funding and equipment. As a result, Sasaki moved CIMMS to an old church that was repurposed to a university office building on the corner of Jenkins and Boyd, where the current Sarkeys Energy Center is located.

Strengthening partnerships with both the university and NSSL was Sasaki’s legacy. He assisted in creating an agreement between OU and Kyoto University in Japan, he promoted research and relations between the United States and Japan, and he worked on an international consortium of universities, government and private enterprise to alleviate the loss of life and property.

In a 1990 Sooner Magazine article, former School of Meteorology Director Claude Duchon said that Norman’s Weather Enterprise saw exponential growth in the 1980s.

“The big changes occurred in the ‘80s,” he said. “I think it was a function of the kind of people here.”

The sudden swell was the result of work conducted at least two decades prior, he said. It primarily began with the desire of NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory to work with OU students, and vice-versa. Duchon said the former home of NSSL, on OU’s north research campus, was chosen by the federal government because of its proximity to the university.

“When the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorology was funded, it produced a natural, three-way tie between OU, CIMMS and NSSL,” Duchon said.

Moving on Up

Doug Lilly, left, and Yoshi Sasaki, right.
Doug Lilly, left, and Yoshi Sasaki, right, both former directors of CIMMS. (Photo from Sooner Magazine)

In the mid-1980s, Doug Lilly became the director of CIMMS while serving as a School of Meteorology professor, a tradition every CIMMS director has continued.

The organization continued to grow and moved across the street to “a building by the railroad tracks.”

“I remember when we were located in the building by the railroad tracks,” CIMMS Research Scientist Terry Schuur said. “We’ve certainly grown since then and our partnerships with our federal counterparts have expanded. We were working on Doppler radar and now we have a radar combining Doppler and dual-polarization.”

Not long after, CIMMS moved into the Sarkeys Energy Center.

The Energy Center was a productive move for CIMMS. Then OU President Frank E. Horton said the creation of the building and its prestigious occupants boded well for research on campus.

CIMMS expansion, and increased collaboration with federal entities, was “a strong endorsement of the quality of the university,” he told Sooner Magazine in 1986.

Shortly after the move, CIMMS welcomed a new director.

Former CIMMS Director Peter Lamb, who served from 1991-2014.
Former CIMMS Director Peter Lamb, who served from 1991-2014.

Serving its Mission

Peter Lamb was CIMMS’ longest-serving director – guiding the organization from 1991 until his passing in 2014. Randy Peppler served as interim director from 2014 to 2017, and Greg McFarquhar began in July 2017.

During Lamb’s tenure, he developed the Southern Great Plains Cloud Radiation Testbed — one of three world-wide sites in the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.

CIMMS expanded from Norman to having researchers at the National Weather Service Training Center in Kansas City. The Department of Commerce awarded NSSL and its cooperative institute partner a gold medal for work leading up to, and the ongoing support, of the national deployment of the Doppler WSR-88D radars. Such radars are still in service by the National Weather Service.

Today, CIMMS is located in the National Weather Center along with the School of Meteorology and its numerous federal partners. The cooperative institute also has researchers in Missouri, Tennessee and Colorado. It employs nearly 200 people and has more than $19 million in research funding, making it the largest research organization on OU’s Norman campus.

“CIMMS has promoted collaborative research between NOAA and OU scientists for the last 40 years on issues designed to help produce better forecasts and warnings to ultimately protect lives, property and enhance economic viability,” CIMMS Director Greg McFarquhar said.

Current CIMMS Director Greg McFarquhar

Researchers at CIMMS supporting NSSL developed the Multi-Radar Multi-Sensor System. The system was developed to produce products for improved decision making and improve forecasts and warnings. To this day, CIMMS researchers continue to improve and add products into the MRMS System.

MRMS is one of the many items implemented into the system used by National Weather Service forecasters, known as AWIPS-2. CIMMS research associates with NOAA’s Warning Decision Training Division train forecasters as part of the Radar & Applications Course in using applications like MRMS.

The purpose of this Radar & Applications Course is to train newly-hired NWS forecasters on all factors, including the stress, involved in issuing warnings for tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and flash floods. The course is just one way CIMMS employees are training future forecasters.

“Over the next several years we intend to continue improving our knowledge of weather systems and processes by concentrating on a range of topics from weather radar research and tool development to the use of probabilistic forecasts to better represent uncertainties in forecasts,” McFarquhar said.

CIMMS also serves its mission through a research program known as the Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes EXperiment-Southeast, or VORTEX-SE. Led by NOAA’s NSSL, the program aims to understand environmental factors that are characteristic of the southeastern U.S. and its impacts on tornado formation.

Researchers at CIMMS continue to act as a connection between NOAA and the university to better serve the nation in severe weather forecasting and tool development.

“We anticipate that CIMMS’ growth over the last 40 years will continue over the next 40 years as we enhance our understanding of multiple types of high impact weather events in order to improve forecasting tools in support of NOAA’s mission,” McFarquhar said.

For more photos or information, visit CIMMS History tab.