Dave Rust

Dave on the cover of US News and World Report

In today’s virtual world, NSSL’s Dave Rust continues to be grounded in reality.  With an eye always to the sky, this observational scientist has pioneered creative ways to measure storms for the past 35 years.  Dave is retiring at the end of 2010, and we wanted to honor his significant, even revolutionary contributions, to thunderstorm science, especially through observation platforms.  From mobile laboratories to instrumented storm-penetrating balloons, Dave’s measurements have contributed much to our present understanding of how storms become charged and produce lightning.

“I have always been in awe of nature,” says Dave as he recalled lying on his front lawn in New Braunfels, Texas, watching the changing shapes of summertime cumulus clouds.  He was an only child who loved to study, tinker and build.

Dave has always been good with his hands.  Using a homemade set of wooden blocks made by his grandfather, Dave would use wet sand to make structures in his sandbox.  He upgraded to a small erector set and came up with simple and then not-so-simple structures.  “I used the Erector motor with a gear train to build a carnival ride consisting of four airplanes each suspended from one of four rotor arms,” he says.  Dave then created a game using a canon that used rubber bands to launch plastic artillery shells to knock a small figure off the planes as they flew by. In seventh grade shop he learned how to work with leather, making purses and coin holders to sell door-to-door.  He took this skill to college, selling crests to his fraternity brothers at Southwestern University in Georgetown, TX.

Dave still tinkers, builds and creates.  His most recent project, a high-definition (HD) precipitation imager, built in collaboration with several scientists, technicians and students, records HD video images of precipitation particles in thunderstorms.  Carefully fabricated of construction-grade styrofoam to minimize splashed particles falling through the camera’s field of view, the instrument uses six high-intensity LED flashlights to shine brightly enough to show small particle images in dark clouds.  An HD camcorder and a GPS tracker are tucked safely in instrument housing away from precipitation.  Carried by a large balloon, the HD precipitation imager flies through storms with a radiosonde and electric field meter.  Inside storms, these instruments record the size and concentration of raindrops and small hail, along with the corresponding electric field, temperature, location and time.  The balloon data will be used in thunderstorm modeling, warn-on-forecast studies, and dual-polarization radar precipitation classification schemes. “I find it extremely gratifying to make a measurement and learn something new,” he says.

It was during graduate school at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro, N.M. that Dave stumbled into the field of atmospheric electricity. He was measuring radon flow in mountain canyons for his Master’s work, but found something magical about the weather.  In his spare time he helped with thunderstorm projects, eventually moving his research into atmospheric electricity.  His Ph.D. dissertation became the foundation of his career: the electrical conditions near the bases of thunderclouds using measurements from a tethered balloon.

“Tethered doesn’t work,” Dave says, so he built something that did. As a post doc in Boulder, Colo., Dave used “free-ballooning,” to measure the electric field inside thunderstorms. “I think that probably mobile ballooning would be my biggest career success,” says Dave.