In Memoriam: Dr. Mark Lander

A Tribute by Dr. John Jenson, WERI Director

All of us at WERI recognized Dr. Lander as a brilliant and gifted scientist…His contributions of more than two decades have been fundamental to the success of WERI and the University. 

Dr. Lander grew up in Rhode Island, where he finished high school in 1972. He maintained that it was his early childhood fascination with New England weather that led him into meteorology,…and he liked to tell how his grade-school teachers had often scolded him for “daydreaming” during class when he was in fact scrutinizing clouds through the school windows… closely studying their relations to the direction and strength of the wind…or to the intensity of the rain. He also recounted his fascination with stories the grown-ups told of The Great New England Hurricane of September 21, 1938—one of the most destructive and powerful storms in recorded history.

He went off to college at the University of Lowell (Massachusetts), majoring in meteorology (of course!). For his master’s degree, he went to Florida State University, where he could study…hurricanes. For his doctorate, he went to the University of Hawaii,…where he could study…typhoons…and surf. He stayed in the Pacific for the rest of his career, becoming one of the world’s experts on tropical cyclones and Pacific climatic phenomena, most especially the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (or ENSO) and its effects on western Pacific weather, sea levels, and environmental conditions.

He loved the Pacific…and his fascination with the Pacific sky never waned. He would call me and my wife at dinnertime…“Hey, are you watching the sunset…? Take a look at it, right now….!”

Then with us standing in front of our house facing west, and Mark on speaker, he would explain in detail the structure of the clouds and the effects of…the haze from the forest fires in Indonesia, or…the industrial smog from China, or…the volcanic ash from Pagan, or…the Big Island of Hawaii…which he was tracking on his computer with real-time satellite imagery and atmospheric circulation models. The latest such call was about six weeks ago, Tuesday, June 7th, when Cheri took this photo.

Prior to joining the WERI faculty in 1999, Dr. Lander was the research liaison between the Guam-based Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC) and the academic community. Funded by the Office of Naval Research, he conducted research and training for the JTWC, including professional development training for its Typhoon Duty Officers and Satellite analysts.

As a research scientist at WERI, he leveraged his academic work by staying engaged in applied, interagency work. For more than 20 years, he wrote the quarterly newsletter of the Pacific ENSO Applications Center (PEAC), working closely with the National Weather Service to provide long-range climate forecasts. Following each of the devastating typhoon strikes in the region—Guam in 1997 and 2002, Yap in 2004, and Saipan in 2015 and 2018—the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) retained him to provide the assessment of how storm damage related to the storm conditions for each one.

Dr. Lander thrived on physically strenuous fieldwork and filled in the gaps with recreational hiking—what’s called “boonie stomping” on Guam. He was one of the volunteer leaders for the Guam Boonie Stompers every Saturday morning for almost 30 years. He was the first scientist to place a rain gage atop the highest mountain in the high-ground interior of Pohnpei Island in the Federated States of Micronesia. The site gets more than 400 inches of rain annually. On Guam, he kept his own fleet of rain gages around the island, including some on the peaks of the southern mountains, and he would take off during an afternoon to dash up and download data. On each such sortie, he carried a spare rain gauge in case he had to replace the one in the field and bring it back for repair or refurbishment, which he did himself. We removed 17 rain gages in various states of repair from his office when we cleared it out.

Early in his academic career he taught meteorology, astronomy, and the climatic history of Guam. For the graduate environmental science program, he team-taught two core courses: Scientific Competence and Integrity with Ross Miller and me; and Geoscience-Engineering (meteorology block) with the rest of the WERI faculty. He and I also taught Pacific Island Geologic and Climatic History. And he offered three courses of his own: Tropical Cyclones,…Climate and Climate Variability,…and Remote Sensing.

He very much enjoyed teaching…and if he had difficulty staying on topic…it was because he had wide-ranging interests, passionate enthusiasm, and an extraordinary multidisciplinary skill set—particularly data analysis, programming, and mathematical problem-solving—which he could apply to any intriguing problem that caught one of his wide-ranging interests. I recall when after the topics of chaos theory, Lorenz Attractors, and “extreme-sensitivity-to-initial-conditions” came up in one of his class discussions on weather forecasting, he decided to throw together some classroom demos. So, he started writing fractal equation sets in EXCEL that produced strange-attractors, butterflies, leaves, snail shells…he would take these to class to illustrate weather-related concepts…and then….spend the whole class period—and 20-minutes overtime or until the last student finally left—demonstrating how…with humble EXCEL…one could produce amazing fractal images and strange attractors on a laptop. Although he been trained in high-level programming languages, he took pride “in being able to do anything in EXCEL.”

While engaged in such projects, he could subsist in his office on canned tuna, Doritos, and Simpson’s Farm Popcorn working into the wee hours of the mornings day after day for up to a couple of weeks, generating ever-more-cool fractal images, striving for ever-stranger strange attractors, or fitting increasingly higher-order polynomial curves to complex time-series data (using his own techniques) and inventing novel graphic data displays, all in EXCEL, of course—which he would triumphantly email to me at 4:00 AM when he finally went home for a few hours of sleep.

Dr. Lander is known internationally for his expertise in tropical cyclones, and was regularly invited to be a principal speaker at meteorological training workshops. He accumulated more than a million frequent flyer miles on United Air Lines. As a researcher, Dr. Lander was so sought-after as a co-investigator on other peoples’ projects that as the years went by he had little time left to lead projects of his own.
And perhaps most significantly,…besides being in demand as a speaker, instructor, and collaborator, he received a steady and disproportionately large stream of manuscripts to review from editors of the meteorological and climate journals. He was a conscientious—and always helpful—reviewer. I frequently remarked when he showed me one of his characteristically comprehensive, detailed, and gracious reviews that the authors ought to offer him co-authorship instead of the usual acknowledgment—and some of them did!

And I can only guess, but based on what I witnessed, he might have reviewed more than 10 manuscripts a year in his two decades at WERI, for a career total of at least a couple hundred—which is testimony to the high regard that his professional colleagues, and no less than the editors of the journals, had for his acumen, knowledge, and indeed, authority among them. Though never seeking or receiving formal recognition, he was one of leaders of his field of tropical meteorology, and he had a pervasive and profound—though not adequately recognized—impact on it.
I cite this contribution because it is emblematic of his character as a scientist: Formal review of manuscripts and proposals is a stock obligation of modern scientists but it is, paradoxically, done mostly behind the scenes—and is as thankless as it is essential. We get no fees for it, but rather just big slugs of additional work at random times, without notice, and with short deadlines. Reviews are anonymous, so there is no formal recognition beyond the standard acknowledgement at the end of the article: “The authors thank the two anonymous reviewers whose comments….” One’s only compensation is the satisfaction of doing one’s duty presumably for the advancement of science or at least the preservation of some of its professional standards.

But in peer review, Mark was in his element! He thrived on spontaneity, he didn’t seek recognition, and he was not motivated by money or status. And he reveled in the tussle of scientific debate—or any other kind of debate…sometimes a bit more than was good for him. He could get a bit polemical,…even with—perhaps especially with—his friends, and he occasionally found himself obliged to apologize,…which he did…. He neither held nor returned grudges…and he was a dedicated team player who, in spite of his manifest talent never sought to be the star of the show.

Visiting colleagues meeting him for the first time were always impressed, often amazed, by his talent and energy….And as the years went by, an increasing proportion of them picked a moment to ask me, “Umm…so,…how long has Dr. Lander been on your faculty…?…Is he really still only an assistant professor…? Did he get into some kind of trouble…?” To which I would reply, “No, he joined the faculty in 1999, got tenure on time, but has never bothered to apply for promotion.” “Why…?!!” “Too much trouble…!” He would have had to give up more interesting stuff, and the things that really mattered to him—like generating cool fractal images in EXCEL to show his students the next day…or leave Saturday’s boonie stomp leaders short-handed. And he was too busy traveling and delivering invited presentations, and reviewing other peoples’ manuscripts, and writing technical newsletters and co-authored papers with his many collaborators to take time to compile a promotion package.

So, what explains the utter dedication and excellent science of this man who sought no promotion, titles, or even salary in proportion to the quantity and quality—let alone the intensity—of his work?…[Long pause]…By my own observations over the more than 20 years I worked with him, he was driven by—more than anything else—a sincere and deeply held commitment to doing good, honest science based on adequate and reliable data and forthright interpretation of it. He deplored the rampant politicization of modern science—including now, even the earth sciences. And he lamented the damage done to science by the ongoing tendency to measure (and thereby implicitly define) scientific competence or achievement in terms of irrelevant and trivial performance criteria or “metrics” such as “journal impact factors,” publication counts, the number and order of authorship on journal articles, or the amount of grant money one brings in each year. 

I’ll conclude by sharing a specific illustration of his professional selflessness and commitment to successful teamwork… We undertook a paleoclimate study about 15 years ago in which one of our students, Tomo Bell (now Dr. Bell), extracted a core from a coral at Gabgab Beach and, with the assistance of our colleagues at the University of Texas-Austin, analyzed samples from each of the annual coral growth layers for a geochemical parameter from which the corresponding average annual water temperature can be estimated. When we got the plots of the data from the lab analysis, Dr. Lander immediately spotted a remarkable correlation with (…well, yes, water temperature, too…but even more strikingly with…) the ENSO Index! He also spotted the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). (You can ask one of our weather experts to explain these later…). I vividly recall when he came running out of his office and breathlessly showed me the time-series in the hallway.

We published Tomo’s thesis as a WERI technical report and submitted a manuscript to Journal of Coastal Research. But it got a pretty heavy-handed review. (One of the criticisms, incidentally, was that our graphs were all done in EXCEL!) The editor informed us it was rejected…but if we wanted to respond to the reviewer comments and submit a revised draft, he would consider sending it out again for an independent, second review.

To keep this account brief, suffice to say that Dr. Lander made it his personal mission to see this paper into print. We worked late into the night for too-many-nights-to-count to make sure each of our responses to the reviewer comments was bullet-proof. Mark usually stayed on even after I left for the night…and emailed me at 4:00 AM with his latest revisions…. Cheri and I affectionately referred to these late-night “marathon” work sessions as “Landerthons,” as in “Are you going to come home for dinner after work today, or do you have another Landerthon scheduled for tonight…?”)

We eventually submitted the revised manuscript—“A 50-Year Sr/Ca Time Series from an Enclosed, Shallow-Water Guam Coral: In situ Monitoring and Extraction of a Temperature Trend, Annual Cycle, and ENSO and PDO Signals,”—along with a 43-page, single-spaced, point-by-point response to each of the reviewer comments on the original version. (And the graphs were done in EXCEL!) Two weeks later, the editor graciously informed us that our revised manuscript had been accepted virtually “as-is” and made no mention of another review. Dr. Lander frequently remarked (in fact, within the very week he left us) that of all the papers he had published, this one was one of those of which he was the proudest—and that he was even prouder of our 43-page answer to the reviewers…and that graphs in the paper were all done in EXCEL…!

Dr. Lander leaves a remarkable and admirable professional legacy…of 
• selfless pursuit of science for its own sake and
• sincere commitment to doing and defending good science…that is, science that gives correct explanations and reliable predictions. 

From these two traits sprang his commitment to acquiring and using good data, i.e., relevant, accurate, and abundant data,…and his aversion to political control or influence over science and scientists. Simply put, his foremost aspirations were to do science right…and to do it for the right reasons.

His material needs were modest. He did not seek greater comfort, wealth, or status—or high scores on the arbitrary, ineffectual, and irrelevant “performance criteria” that subvert 21st-Century science. Dr. Lander didn’t keep score. He rather sought…and reveled in…
• the wholesome invigoration of taking on tough problems;
• the pure excitement of getting interesting—or better yet, surprising—results from the reduction of data or the solution of an equation;
• the sheer joy of discovery especially unanticipated discovery; and…
• the unalloyed fun of sharing interesting or surprising results or observations with others…

not to show off or boast about his own prowess, but like a schoolboy gazing out of the window—who suddenly calls out to his friends,
• “Hey…! You guys gotta come see this…!”
Or…who calls them on the phone at dinnertime to ask,
• “…Are you watching the sunset…?”

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