Department's history

From left to right: J Stewart Marshall, F Ken Hare, Barney W Boville, CO Hines, Arthur J Childs (1961)

The history of meteorology at McGill dates back from the middle of the nineteenth century when the McGill Weather Observatory was established. It had made continuous measurements of meteorological variables for over a century. Following the Second World War, two active atmospheric research groups emerged at McGill. Dr. J. Stewart Marshall led a radar meteorology group in the Physics Department, and Dr. F. Kenneth Hare directed an arctic meteorology program in Geography. These two groups united in 1959 to form the Department of Meteorology. Since its creation, the Department has been a Canadian leader in the training of many distinguished scientists in atmospheric science.

Below we present a condensed history of the department outlining the major events that shaped the history of Meteorology and Atmospheric Sciences here at McGill. For more details, please read A Short History of Meteorology at McGill by late Prof. R. R. Rogers.

The origins of our department, or at least the Meteorology side of the department, can be traced back to The Smallwood Observatory at Saint-Martin: a small wood building that Charles Smallwood, M.D., erected in 1841 on his property somewhere in what is now downtown Laval that housed his house and medical practice. An enthusiast for weather, the building housed equipment that he used to take readings and keep records of daily temperatures, seasonal weather among other things related to Meteorology.

22 years later, in 1863 the equipment from Smallwood Observatory was moved to a small building on the McGill grounds (where the Leacock building stands now). The McGill Observatory was thus established. After the passing of Dr. Smallwood, Clement Henry McLeod succeeded as the director of McGill Observatory in 1873. C.H. McLeod served as the Superintendent of the Observatory for forty years (which is why it is also often called the McLeod Observatory). By 1874, McGill became a "chief station" in the new observing network of the Canadian Meteorological Service, connected directly by telegraph to the central forecast office, reporting observations every three hours.

The WWII saw a resurgence of activity in meteorology at McGill. Wartime needs had stimulated great advances in weather observing and forecasting. One such project was the Project Stormy Weather of the Canadian Army Operational Research Group, which started two years before the war ended. In 1945, under the direction of Stewart Marshall, the Stormy Weather Research moved from the National Research Council to McGill initiating the unbroken history of radar meteorology at McGill.

A year after the war, a research program focused on the meteorology and climatology of Polar Regions was started at McGill when Kenneth Hare joined McGill in 1946. In 1954, Prof. Hare arranged for the polar meteorology research project supported by the U.S. Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories (AFCRL) to be transferred from UCLA to McGill a in, thereby forming the Arctic Meteorology Research Group.

In 1955, considering the many meteorological related projects taking place at McGill, the University agreed to offer a Ph.D. in Meteorology for students working under Prof. Hare in Geography or Prof. Marshall in Physics. As such, in 1956, Arthur Belmont became McGill's first Ph.D. graduate in Meteorology with Dr. Hare as supervisor.

However, due to the extensive research being carried out by the Stormy Weather Group and the Arctic Meteorology Group McGill established its very own Department of Meteorology in 1959.

In 1967, AFCRL presented Dr. Marshall with a brand-new radar having outstanding potential for meteorological work. And in 1968, a laboratory was built on the campus of Macdonald College to accommodate the radar. This new structure became the McGill Weather Radar Observatory. The observatory is now called the JS Marshall Radar Observatory.

The 1960s and 1970s were characterized by an expansion of meteorological research and break through in research fields of urban air pollution, hailstorms and hail development, cloud physics, physical climatology, large-scale dynamics, physical and dynamic meteorology among many others.

In 1986, McGill formed Canada's first university Climate Research Group in cooperation with the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Meteorological Service of Canada. Four years later, in response to a broadening of both the scope of research activities and membership, the group changed its name to the Centre for Climate and Global Change Research (C2GCR). Eventually, five university departments became involved in the Centre. Around the same time, the department also hosted another research center, the Cooperative Centre for Research in Mesometeorology (CCRM), with members at McGill, the Université du Québec à Montréal, and local offices of the Meteorological Service of Canada.

The history of oceanographic research at McGill also dates from the 1850's, and was brought into focus in 1963 with the establishment of the Marine Sciences Centre (later the Institute of Oceanography). Under the directorship of Dr. Max J. Dunbar, the Institute offered M.Sc. and Ph.D. degree programs in the areas of physical, geological and biological oceanography. In 1987 the Institute was closed and a Graduate Program in Oceanography was established to coordinate teaching and research in the marine sciences carried out by faculty members in the Departments of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, Earth and Planetary Sciences and Biology.

In January 1992, the name of the Department was changed to Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences to reflect the breadth of the teaching and research activities in the atmosphere, physical oceanography and climate studies. The Department currently has fourteen Faculty members and several research associates and postdoctoral fellows. It is the largest university group in atmospheric and oceanic sciences in Canada.

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