Richard Brandt: a traveling scientist

Not many people get to travel the world extensively, and fewer can claim that they have visited the Antarctic, the Arctic and Greenland many times. Richard Brandt is one of those people.

Richard is a research scientist for the University of Washington in Seattle, in the Atmospheric Sciences Department, which has given him this unique opportunity.

Richard grew up in Canton. He has always loved the cold and the snow. In fact, he can recall a time when he was 13 years old and his parents bought him a tent. He was so excited to sleep in it that he went out in minus-20-degree weather. He always loved winter camping and has enjoyed skiing. He first cross-country skied Mount Marcy in 1976.

Richard decided to major in physics at Vassar College. Upon completion of his bachelor’s degree, he decided to move on to graduate school. His initial plans were to get a doctoral degree in astrophysics.

Richard, always being a hands-on kind of person, was dismayed to discover that astrophysicists only receive data that is given to them by technicians.

“They don’t even build the equipment; everything is done by technicians,” Richard told me.

This altered Richard’s course; he decided instead to major in geophysics and received his master’s degree from the University of Washington.

For his thesis, Richard published a computer model of the energy balance in snow that takes into account the distribution of radiation (visible light, infrared and ultraviolet all being forms of radiation) in the snow pack. His model has become a component of avalanche prediction and climate models in use today.

Since Richard and his wife Ellen Beberman liked this area much more than Seattle, they moved to Vermontville. Ellen is a market farmer, and this is a good region for her to work. She manages the Wild Center’s farmers market and is one of its vegetable vendors.

Of course, Richard’s research with snow and the different optical properties that go along with snow, such as how much light snow reflects (also known as albedo) vs. how thick the ice or snowpack is, has meant that he has traveled to the places in the world that have the thickest ice.

Richard has traveled to Greenland four times. He was dismayed to say that last summer was the first when all of Greenland has experienced melting. Normally, the highest elevations don’t experiencing any melting at all. He has also visited the Arctic region eight times for his research and has been to Antarctica on 13 expeditions.

Richard’s children attended the Bloomingdale Elementary School. It was there that kindergarten teacher Michelle Fall came up with the idea that a stuffed penguin, which belonged to a Bloomingdale class, could go along with Richard on some of his expeditions. And so began the legacy of Waddles the penguin. Waddles has gone along with Richard on several expeditions. Waddles has visited both the Arctic and Antarctic. While in the former, Waddles visited an Inuit kindergarten class.

Waddles has had many pictures taken of her on her adventures that can be seen on Richard’s website,

In order to collect data on the changing albedo of Antarctica, Richard and his French colleague Delphine Six built a 105-foot walk-up tower to collect data. As Richard explains it, satellites are not capable of gathering all of the data needed to measure albedo across Antarctica, which made this tower a necessity to map reflected sunlight. It took him and his colleague six weeks to build; wearing full winter gear did not make this an easy task.

The tower has equipment on it that breaks up incoming light into different spectra (UV, visible light and infrared, which cover the majority of incoming sunlight) to see how each gets reflected in different patterns.

Richard has stayed in Antarctica for as long as four months at a time, and he has stayed at the majority of the bases there. He has worked with many of the research groups that go there including the American, Australian, French, Italian and New Zealand national Antarctic programs.

The travel is rough on family life, but Richard said there are trade-offs. Although he has been away at Thanksgiving, Christmas and his daughter’s birthday, the family has also been able to travel to be with him in places such as Australia and New Zealand, which perhaps would not be as financially feasible if he did not have grants for his travel. Also, they have benefited from the fact that he can live anywhere and do his work, which has allowed them to remain in Vermontville.

Recently, Richard has become the science manager of the Atmospheric Science Research Center’s Whiteface Mountain Observatory. Richard has been working to maintain and upgrade the equipment at the site and has also been working with Paul Casson, the operations manager there, to get more research going on at the site. To raise public interest, they started a free lecture series at the site, which began July 9.

Richard continues to work feverishly to bring new data to increase our understanding of the changing climate.