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Robert Cunningham; strived to clear mystery enveloping fog

Bob Cunningham, outside the one-person hut in New Brunswick, Canada, where most of his research on fog took place. The structure behind him is known as a fog catcher. Bob Cunningham, outside the one-person hut in New Brunswick, Canada, where most of his research on fog took place. The structure behind him is known as a fog catcher. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff/file 2001)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Emma Stickgold
Globe Correspondent / May 1, 2008

Robert Cunningham often had his head in the clouds, literally: He was one of the longest-serving researchers of a single scientific study - fog.

But the Cambridge native modestly said he did not have a clear notion of whether his work revealed any key details about the mist that enveloped his life, much as it did the world around him.

"Not really," the octogenarian told the Globe with a smile when asked in a 2001 interview about whether anything spectacular had shown up in his data over the years.

"Well, that's not true. He had these records going way back about how fog got these levels of acidity," said Nathaniel Wheelwright, a professor of biology at Bowdoin College who directed the college's scientific station on Kent Island in the Bay of Fundy.

His legacy included a detailed documentation of the buildup and decline of acidity from pollution that found its way into the bay's fog, Wheelwright said.

Dr. Cunningham - an 89-year-old cloud physicist and atmospheric scientist, whom many knew as "Fogseeker," the name of his rowboat - died April 15 at Emerson Hospital in Concord.

He was "one of those people who could look at the sky and say what was going on," said his son Peter of New York City. "A lot of meteorologists need their instruments, but he knew what was going on just by looking up in the sky."

The ubiquitous nature of fog was what initially piqued his interest. In reminiscences he wrote for a personal website, he recalled uttering his first word, "ice," after hearing the driver of a horse-drawn wagon shout it daily.

"A proper start for a cloud physicist/meteorologist," he wrote.

By age 10, he was writing down weather observations twice a day, a tradition he continued for seven decades. As his interest in the field developed, he began spending summers on Kent Island, paying for room and board by milking a cow and collecting fog water.

The mists of Kent first drew him in 1937, according to his online biography. He used a screen to capture droplets, but as technology became more sophisticated, he used a computerized system that tested the acidity of water samples. In 10-second intervals, it also scoured the area for signs of solar radiation and to determine wind speed. His results showed that the Kent Island fog matched the acidity of vinegar at times. Later in his career, he studied the levels of mercury present in the fog.

While earning his bachelor's degree in the late 1930s from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he worked on a project involving two years of fog-water collection.

After his 1942 graduation from MIT, he worked on an aircraft de-icing project, spending winters in Minneapolis mostly in B-25 military aircraft.

In the mid-1940s, he married Claire Steinhardt, a chemist.

He earned his doctorate in 1952, and worked in the MIT meteorology department, which had just acquired an Air Force B-17 that was used to take measurements of clouds. He started working for Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories, heading the cloud physics section. His team traveled the world in a large aircraft doing research, and in the process, developed special instruments that became staple items for researchers in the field. One such tool was a device that measures vapor pressure changes, which helped with learning about the structures of clouds.

For years he lived in Lincoln in a house he built in the late 1940s. He made frequent trips to Kent Island, collecting data and then returning to the family's summer house on Grand Manan, an island in the Bay of Fundy. He often rose at dawn, entering data into a computer at a research station. He occasionally used a 6-by-6-foot shack on the island that he dubbed "Fog Heaven," curling his legs up because the shack was too small for his lanky frame.

"He was just dedicated to this remote, rough life, using outhouses, living out there in the cold," Wheelwright said. "The first thing he'd do is put his hands on his hips and look up at the sky."

He often worked with a team of Bowdoin College students who helped him gather weather observations. "He provided not only instruction; Bob was really there for the students," Wheelwright said.

His pencil-drawn weather maps and various charts were often spread out across the kitchen table, and he carried a rain gauge wherever he went.

Dr. Cunningham joined the World Meteorological Organization in a four-year stint as field director of a project involving a multinational study of rainfall from weather-modification projects.

After retiring in the 1980s, he compared data from his research in the late 1930s with 1980s data. The project ballooned into a series of observations that are now on file at Bowdoin College.

His family said that in the Cunningham household, a big storm heading up the East Coast was the most exciting of times. "It was like a football game in other families," his son Peter said in a written remembrance.

"He was interested in all things natural, the way potatoes grow or how to build some aspect of a house. He was curious about the physical world," Peter said.

In addition to his wife and son, Dr. Cunningham leaves two other sons, James and William, both of Lincoln.

A service will be held at 2 p.m. May 10 in the White Church (First Parish) in Lincoln Center.

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