ARM Chooses New Manager for Southern Great Plains Observatory

Published: 19 November 2017

Mike Ritsche Takes Over for Nicki Hickmon

Mike Ritsche

Mike Ritsche, Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) and assistant facility manager at the ARM Climate Research Facility’s Southern Great Plains (SGP) atmospheric observatory, replaced Nicki Hickmon as facility manager October 1. Hickmon, also based at ANL, has moved into Jimmy Voyles’ former role, now called ARM’s associate director of operations.

Ritsche and Hickmon will continue their strong working relationship in their new jobs, providing valuable continuity at SGP. Both of these seasoned ARM hands are the right people for their roles, and both have gotten where they are by similar career trajectories, in which each stage has prepared them for the next.

Military Meteorology

Ritsche grew up in the Illinois heartland. After high school, he joined the Air Force to see the world while considering career options.

He attended weather school after basic training, studying basic meteorology and then weather observations. He didn’t know it yet, but the die was already cast for his subsequent career.

After completing his studies, Ritsche was posted to Fort Stewart, Georgia. The Army has no weather capability of its own, instead relying on the Air Force for these services. In a team of six, Ritsche spent 18 months doing tactical weather work for the Army, including installing equipment in the Mojave Desert.

Next, he was to be posted to Biloxi, Mississippi, to replace a hurricane hunter, but the incumbent stayed on and Ritsche was ordered instead to RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk, England. There he performed observations that left him little outlet for his considerable field experience.

Back to School

Disenchanted with the Air Force, but still interested in meteorology, Ritsche left the service. Within a few years, he finished his B.S. at Northern Illinois University, then started a master’s program.

Ritsche (leaning on railing) stands with the second ARM Mobile Facility (AMF2) team during a Marine ARM GPCI Investigation of Clouds (MAGIC) cruise.
Ritsche (red jacket, center) and Nicki Hickmon (red jacket, right) watch a balloon launch at Hyytiala, Finland, during the Biogenic Aerosols – Effects on Clouds and Climate (BAECC) experiment in 2014.

The small department provided unusual opportunities: Even as an undergraduate, Ritsche installed and maintained 10 weather stations and 30 rain gauges for the Advanced Farming unit of Case Corporation. He continued studying applied climatology, completing his courses and working on his thesis. He got a job for DeKalb County, west of Chicago, doing geographic information system (GIS) mapping for everything from voter districts to agricultural land use.

Argonne, ARM, and Widening Horizons

In 2001, Ritsche joined ARM at ANL, replacing the retiring mentor of the surface meteorological instrumentation (MET), including the 40-meter tower at the Barrow, Alaska, site. He has been full time at ARM ever since.

Ritsche later took over mentoring for the temperature, humidity, wind, and pressure system (THWAPS), and he helped design and build—and then mentored—the surface temperature humidity reference system for sondes (SURTHREF). He did the same for the balloon-borne sounding system (SONDE) and helped support ground and sky radiometers (GNDRAD, SKYRAD).

He also began working on deployments for the first ARM Mobile Facility (AMF1), accompanying it to China, California, and the Azores. He helped author ANL’s successful bid for AMF2, joined the design and build team, and participated in the beta test on the research vessel Connecticut. Ritsche then helped with the unit’s first field deployment in the Storm Peak Lab Cloud Property Validation Experiment (STORMVEX) from 2010 to 2011 in Colorado, where he met Nicki Hickmon, then working as a contractor.

At the end of the STORMVEX deployment, Ritsche convinced ANL to hire Hickmon, originally to take over his mentorships. But a staff departure caused a crisis, allowing Hickmon to take over as manager of AMF2 while Ritsche became the technical manager. They deployed together with AMF2 to the Maldives; then on the Marine ARM GPCI Investigation of Clouds (MAGIC) cruises between Los Angeles, California, and Honolulu, Hawaii; to Finland; and on the ARM Cloud Aerosol Precipitation Experiment (ACAPEX) deployment on the research vessel Ronald H. Brown.

When control of AMF2 transferred to Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in 2015, Hickmon and Ritsche took over as manager and assistant manager, respectively, at SGP. Their dynamic working relationship continued seamlessly.

The following year, Ritsche added a new title as ARM’s instrument engineering manager. He also serves on the Implementation Strategy Team (IST), Aerosol Measurement Science Group (AMSG), and Reprocessing Advisory Board (RAB). In these capacities, he helps plan and track new instrumentation, upgrades, and changes to instruments, and helps guide the direction of ARM in meeting science goals.

Challenges Equal Growth

Ritsche says that every stage of his career has involved meeting a series of new challenges. His relentless drive, attention to detail, and people skills continue to propel him forward. For example, when AMF2 was designed, new instrumentation had to be incorporated. Ritsche found room for disdrometers, rain gauges, and more.

And at climatologically challenging sites such as Barrow and Atqasuk, Alaska, instrument systems couldn’t stay up and running because they weren’t robust enough. Ritsche redesigned them so they worked: ARM took note.

“I always made it work,” he says, smiling, “no matter what it was. They liked that.”

Ritsche was the ARM Facility’s choice to extract AMF2 when a political crisis threatened ARM operations in the Maldives during 2011 and 2012. He and his team got the valuable instrumentation out in 10 days, with no incidents.

“It was a scary, nervous time,” he recalls. “We didn’t get much sleep.”

Flagship SGP

Ritsche (white shirt with lanyard) poses with the AMF2 team in the Maldives.

Now, at the SGP, Ritsche will have full scope to deploy his deep institutional knowledge of ARM sites, people, and instruments. He has three main strategies to realize his ultimate goal of cementing the SGP’s reputation as the world’s premier site for ground-based atmospheric observations:

  1. Continue providing premier service to visiting scientists on field campaigns.
  2. Increase SGP’s role as a user facility by pursuing interagency collaborations.
  3. Hire a dedicated radar engineer.

Ritsche’s also keen on hosting more unmanned aerial system (UAS) tests, and the World Infrared Standard Group visited in October to calibrate and test its new standard for infrared radiometers.

So it’s all go at the SGP, and Ritsche is definitely up for it.

Congratulations, Mike!

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The ARM Climate Research Facility is a DOE Office of Science user facility. The ARM Facility is operated by nine DOE national laboratories, including Argonne National Laboratory.