For decades, a Naval Postgraduate School professor has been quietly pursuing both world class research and “meteorology diplomacy” in a climate of tense and acrimonious relations between Taiwan and China, relations that made the Taiwan Strait one of the most dangerous flashpoints in the second half of the 20th Century.
Evoking the “Ping Pong diplomacy” through which former President Nixon first opened the door to China, NPS Distinguished Professor of Meteorology Chih-Pei “C.P.” Chang, now the Chair of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Monsoon Panel, a United Nations agency, has long taken advantage of the fact that super cyclones and monsoons don’t recognize national borders.
“Meteorology – weather research and forecasting – sometimes involves international politics because it requires international cooperation, especially at a time when global climate change is arguably the most important issue facing humankind,” Chang stressed. “Countries have to work together, because the atmosphere has no boundaries.”
A perfect example is the response to Typhoon Megi last month, the strongest tropical cyclone to strike the Western Pacific in two decades.
“Meteorologists from the Philippines, Taiwan and China as well as many other countries had to work together to predict the development, path and force of this mega storm,” Chang explained. “Megi’s 140-mile-an-hour winds flattened buildings and groves in the Philippines, and though it didn’t make landfall in Taiwan, its interaction with the northeast monsoon winds triggered torrential rains that caused eastern Taiwan’s worst ever disaster. Two buses with mainland Chinese tourists and their local guides fell into the Pacific Ocean when Taiwan’s eastern coastal highway collapsed, and most of the bodies will probably never be recovered. The storm then went on to threaten China’s southern coast forcing an evacuation of 150,000.”
Chang’s life story is indeed a compelling one … his career as an initially reluctant student of meteorology began in his home country of Taiwan, where he hated to study and often skipped classes to follow his passion, chemistry, in libraries and a home laboratory.
“At that time, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Taiwan was under martial law and many of the teachers had military backgrounds,” the monsoon expert recalled. “I led my class in protesting the heavy discipline, which normally would have gotten me into big trouble. But I was so young they kicked me out instead of putting me in jail. My father pleaded with the administration not to formally expel me, and they agreed to keep me enrolled if I’d stay at home away from the other students for the rest of the school year. I used those months to study for the college entrance exam, and ended up being the only student to score high enough to get into university. But it was many points shy of what was needed to get into the field I wanted – chemistry – so I had to enroll in geography to be admitted to the country’s top school, National Taiwan University [NTU].
“So it’s actually by accident that I got into meteorology, which was then a division of the geography department” Chang chuckled. “And I didn’t do any better in college than before. I spent all my time playing bridge. After nearly flunking out twice, after five years I finally graduated, third from the bottom of my class – but I got really good at bridge,” he said. So good, in fact, that Chang became the youngest Taiwanese then to reach the status of Life Master of the game. In the process, he and his team won a number of national bridge championships during the years he was a student at NTU.
“This, of course, made my father very unhappy,” Chang said. “Traditional Chinese families want their children to study, to become a scholar, but that was against my nature.”
After finally receiving his undergraduate degree in meteorology, which the NTU Department chairman reluctantly allowed on the condition that Chang not seek a meteorology job in Taiwan, his father urged him to pursue graduate study in the U.S.
“I knew I didn’t have the grades, but just kept applying,” he said, “and was finally accepted as a graduate teaching assistant with the U.S. Air Force Meteorology Program at Saint Louis University because a graduate student they’d accepted for a T.A. had backed out at the last minute,” Chang noted.
Chang accepted the assistantship and moved to the U.S. in 1967, but his heart still wasn’t in it 100 percent. “Without a bridge partner, I had nothing to do but to study,” he grimaced. “Since I hadn’t passed basic math in college, I took the most basic undergraduate math classes at Saint Louis and got A’s, which landed me in Seattle.”
After a chance meeting between his math professor and the chair of the University of Washington’s (UW) Atmospheric Sciences Department, one of the best meteorology schools in the country, in 1968 Chang was offered a research assistantship on a Ph.D. track at UW, where he’d previously been rejected by the admissions office due to low college grades.
While at the University of Washington, Chang once again became disinterested in studying and joined – and was soon leading – the Seattle Chinese student movement protesting Taiwan’s authoritarian government.
“At that time, there were no Chinese students from mainland China in U.S. universities – only from Taiwan and Hong Kong, and some other foreign countries,” he noted. “Because of my activities critical of the Taiwan authorities, it wasn’t long before I was on the Taiwan government’s blacklist, and that blacklist kept me from being able to return to Taiwan for six years.”
After receiving his doctoral degree in Atmospheric Sciences in 1972, Chang was offered and accepted an assistant professor position at the Naval Postgraduate School, and soon became a naturalized U.S. citizen. It was then that the "finally no longer a student" Chang embarked on what would become a sterling academic career which, along the way, would grant opportunities to bridge academic and political boundaries to advance international understanding and cooperation on weather and climate issues in the Asia-Pacific region.
“In the 1980s, a top priority for the Reagan administration was pushing for U.S.-China cooperation as a way to counter the Soviet Union in the Cold War, which meant meteorology went up in potential geopolitical strategic value, as there are no national boundaries for the weather,” Chang said. “I was on the first U.S. delegation to China on monsoon research when there were no cars in Beijing except for military vehicles, and food was tightly rationed; otherwise there would not have been enough to prevent mass starvation.”
“After the delegation returned, I was tapped by the National Science Foundation [NSF] and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA] to be the first U.S. Scientific Coordinator for the U.S.-People’s Republic of China Cooperative Program on Monsoon Research,” Chang continued. “The second meeting in the series was held here at the Naval Postgraduate School, in Spanagel Hall in June 1985. The program was a major component of the U.S.-China Agreement for Exchange in Atmospheric Sciences, the first science agreement signed by the two countries after the establishment of diplomatic relations.”
Concurrent with his teaching and research at the Naval Postgraduate School, Chang maintained and expanded his ties with Taiwan’s meteorology research and forecasting communities. From 1984 to 1994, when he served as a science advisor to the Long-Term Development Program for Numerical Weather Prediction of Taiwan’s Central Weather Bureau and collaborated with Taiwanese professors in atmospheric science research under a U.S.-Taiwan cooperative program also sponsored by NSF, he once again found himself thrust onto the geopolitical stage.
“In the 1950 to 1980 time frame, Mainland China and Taiwan meteorologists, particularly those working for the government weather services, had never been able to gather together because of the conflict between the two sides,” Chang recalled. “Contacts with colleagues on the other side could mean trouble for them.”
“In June 1989, just weeks before a meeting – the first of its kind – that I’d been planning for a year to bring together meteorologists from mainland China and Taiwan in British-ruled Hong Kong, the Chinese government suddenly cancelled the conference following the massacre at Tiananmen Square, worried that scientists might use it to defect. The whole country was put under martial law. They closed all the universities and newspapers and froze all international interactions, including the meeting I’d been working on.”
But the conference must go on, Chang recalled. “On behalf of the U.S. University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, the U.S. sponsor of the meeting, I called every [Chinese] official I’d gotten to know in the year leading up to the meeting and they all said they should not talk to me – that if I continued, I’d get them into trouble,” he said. “But thanks to the then President of the World Meteorological Organization, with whom I’d worked on the conference, the Chinese government reversed course, even though it was to be held in Hong Kong where one million people were protesting [Tiananmen] loudly in the streets.
“In addition to geopolitics, part of the reason I think we were successful in keeping this conference – a watershed event in the relationship between the two countries’ weather services – from being cancelled is that weather doesn’t have borders, and monsoons devastatingly impact some of the most densely populated areas in that part of the world,” he said. “I also told the then head of the WMO, the only Chinese national ever to head a U.N. agency, that canceling the meeting would make China look bad in Taiwan, as we were trying to bring meteorological exchange across the Taiwan Strait in a period of very sensitive and tense relationship.”
In 2000, in just over 10 years, Chang himself would become Vice Chair of WMO’s International Panel on East Asian Monsoon Research. Then in 2006, when all the WMO’s monsoon panels were consolidated into the Monsoon Panel of the World Weather Research Program’s Tropical Meteorology Research Working Group, he became the Chair, a post he still holds. From this position, Chang coordinates global research collaboration on tropical meteorology and on local and planet-wide wind circulation and rainfall over the monsoon regions at a time when international calls to mitigate the effects of global warming are increasingly powerful drivers of geopolitical change.
After that first International Conference on East Asia and Western Pacific Meteorology and Climate in July 1989, which was allowed to proceed in Hong Kong and which resulted in the book East Asia and Western Pacific Meteorology and Climate, Chang coordinated all three subsequent Taiwan-China bilateral workshops in the field, until 1998 when the cross-Strait relationship began to improve.
NPS Distinguished Professor C.P. Chang with participants of the Second U.S.-People's Republic of China Workshop on Cooperation in Monsoon Research, held at the Naval Postgraduate School in June 1985. The U.S. scientists include, front row: far left, John Young of the University of Wisconsin, far left; Michio Yanai of the University of California at Los Angeles, third from left; Chang, sixth from left; Lance Bosart of the State University of New York at Albany, seventh from left. Second row: William Lau of NPS, now with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, third from left; Peter Webster of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, now at Georgia Tech, sixth from lef); Takio Murakami of the University of Hawaii, seventh from left. Third row: Melinda Peng of NPS, now with Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) Marine Meteorology, second from left; C.S. Liu of NPS, now with NRL Marine Meteorology, fourth from left; Man-Kin Mak of the University of Illinois, fifth from left; Bill Kuo of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, 6th from left. Fourth row: second from left; Russ Elsberry of NPS, fourth from left; T. Krishnamurti of Florida State University, far right. U.S. government representatives include Pam Stephens of the National Science Foundation, first row, fourth from left; and the representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, fourth row, far left; and the State Department, fourth row, fifth from left, and third row, far right. The Chinese delegation was led by Shiyan Tao, Director of Atmospheric Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, front row center, and Yihui Ding of the National Climate Center, China Meteorological Administration, first row, far right.
“It took until the third cross-Strait workshop, several months after the Taiwan Strait missile crisis when China fired missiles near the seas around Taiwan, for the two sides [Taiwan and China] to finally talk to one another,” Chang recalled. “And it was the first time [after the crisis] that mainland China allowed one of its central government officials -- the deputy administrator of China’s Meteorological Administration -- to visit Taiwan.”
“After that,” Chang recalled, “things moved a lot more quickly. Regular exchange visits between researchers, forecasters, professors and graduate students become routine, and cross-Strait collaboration projects between universities, institutions and government weather services mushroomed.”
In addition to his contributions defrosting meteorology exchanges between the two former enemies across the Taiwan Strait, Chang promoted global collaboration on weather and climate studies in Asia and other monsoon regions as part of his leadership of the WMO Monsoon Panel. He led organizing three of the four WMO International Workshops on Monsoons held to date -- the first in 1995, the third in 2004, and the fourth in 2008. “The most recent in the series, in 2008, was a historic milestone, as it was the first joint activity of both the World Weather Research Programme [WWRP] and the World Climate Research Programme [WCRP],” Chang noted.
As for the Naval Postgraduate School, where Chang began his 38th year in September, he says it’s fortunate for his career that he “landed” here.
“The basic research I do on tropical and monsoon meteorology, including tropical cyclones and planetary- and regional-scale wind circulation and rainfall, is important to two thirds of the world’s population and also everybody in the Navy,” he stressed, “and the NPS Department of Meteorology has a good reputation in this country and the world because of the research of its faculty and students in this area.”
Surprisingly, after nearly four decades in the university environment, Chang still claims to be a reluctant academic.
“Meteorology is highly mathematical, and I hate math,” he laughed. “I flunked out of most of my math courses in high school and college and even some I took in graduate school.”
It’s clear from the record, however, that not being mathematically inclined hasn’t interfered with Chang’s success in applying physics and mathematics to his chosen field of meteorology. And though he believes his many diversified interests in areas outside of academic work made him a perpetually bad student, he immensely enjoys teaching students at NPS.
In addition to being a world authority on Asian monsoons with more than 100 papers to his credit, Chang is also an internationally acclaimed author-editor. He is the lead editor of the classic book Monsoon Meteorology (1987, Oxford University Press), the editor of East Asian Monsoon (2004, World Scientific), and editor or co-editor of six other books in the field. He also serves on the editorial board of a number of U.S. and international journals, and is the Chair of the Editorial Board as well as Co-Chief Series Editor for the World Scientific Series on Asia-Pacific Weather and Climate. The book series just published Volume 4, Global Perspectives on Tropical Cyclones, co-edited by Johnny Chan of Hong Kong and Jeff Kepert of Australia that includes reviews of tropical cyclone research by leading experts invited by the WMO. Volume 5, The Global Monsoon System: Research and Forecast, a review of monsoon meteorology also by WMO-invited experts, is slated for publication in early 2011.
As an NPS professor, Chang is also the recipient of numerous prestigious national, international and Naval Postgraduate School recognitions and awards. He was elected a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society in 1981 and was the recipient of the society’s Clarence Meisinger Award in 1983. In 2003, the same year NPS honored him with the title of Distinguished Professor, Chang was named one of six international Distinguished Meteorologists as part of the Hong Kong Observatory’s 120th Anniversary Commemoration. He was elected a Fellow of the Meteorological Society of Republic of China (Taiwan) in 2007.
Beginning in 1992, Chang has served as executive secretary of the Pacific Science Association Meteorology and Atmospheric Sciences Committee, and was a member of Taiwan’s National Ocean Research Center Scientific Advisory Committee from 1999 to 2003. He was co-chair for the U.S. Scientific Working Group of the South China Sea Monsoon Experiment from 1993 to 1999, and a member of the U.S. Navy Operational Global Atmospheric Prediction System Validation Panel from 1995 to
Chang served on the Hong Kong Royal Observatory Scientific Review Committee in 1996, the year before Hong Kong was returned to China, and on the WMO’s M1 Monsoon Steering Committee from 1997 to 2000. In 1999, he was a member of the NOAA-Columbia University External Review Panel for the International Research Institute for Climate Prediction. He has been a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Climate Center, based in Busan, Korea, since its inception in 2005, and was just invited to join the Scientific Advisory Committee of the newly established APEC Center for Typhoon and Society, based in Taipei and Manila, Philippines, in November 2010.
Chang’s Naval Postgraduate School recognitions include a commendation for excellence in teaching and three for outstanding research, including the prestigious Menneken Research Award. Many of his former NPS students and postdoctoral fellows are now faculty members in the U.S. and abroad, and some hold prestigious leadership positions. These include the Director of Singapore’s Temasek Laboratories, the Vice President for Academic Affairs of National Taiwan University, a former Minister of State for Science and Technology in Taiwan and the Vice Chair of the country’s National Science Council, the Director of the Laboratory for Atmospheres at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the former Director of the India Institute of Tropical Meteorology; and several leaders of national weather services including the former Director General of the Malaysian Meteorological Service, the current Deputy Director General of Taiwan’s National Weather Service, and the Director for Research and Development of the Singapore Meteorological Service.
The main sponsor for the first 20 years of Chang’s research was the National Science Foundation, with subsequent sponsors including NSF, the Office of Naval Research, NAVSEA, NAVAIR, NASA, and NOAA.
In addition to achieving the highest academic rank of distinguished professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, Chang is also an affiliate graduate faculty member of the University of Hawaii, a visiting research chair professor at National Taiwan University, and served on the Ph.D. committees of several major U.S. and international universities.
With nearly 40 years of service to the Navy and the Naval Postgraduate School, Chang says he’s close to official retirement. But that will only mean that NPS’ “meteorology diplomat” will be able to devote even more time to using international cooperation in the study of tropical and monsoonal storms to prevent geopolitical ones.
One thing is certain. Whatever the future brings, Professor C.P. Chang will continue to be a life master of the game.