Student expedition shapes collaborative career for geographer Brazel

ASU geographer Anthony Brazel

Years before becoming a geography professor at Arizona State University, Anthony Brazel spent a summer in remote mountains of Alaska, recruited by his master’s program advisor professor Melvin Marcus to participate in a research expedition there. Brazel, who had recently completed a bachelor’s degree in math and had never camped in his life, spent the summer in the St. Elias Icefields and learned how to conduct meteorological observations, as well as learning about snow and ice analysis, glaciers and mountaineering. Due to the failure of an airplane scheduled to fly the group out at the end of the summer, Marcus led the group on a five-day hike over 90 miles of glaciated terrain back to their base camp and safety.

Recalling the summer and the hike at the end, Brazel says, “I observed what it was like to be mentored, to be encouraged to go on, to conduct research, to work in a team. This was the most life-changing moment in my life.”

The lessons of collaboration and appreciation for fieldwork continued to guide Brazel’s career, from his arrival at ASU in 1974 – when he was again recruited by professor Marcus, at that point director of the Center for Environmental Studies – to the present.

Retiring this summer after a 37-year career at ASU, Brazel leaves a legacy of use-inspired research, leadership, and numerous former students now established in their own careers as geographers and climatologists.

First recruited to help build ASU’s physical geography program and contribute to geography’s new doctoral program, Brazel brought strength in fieldwork, climate, and snow and ice topics. Throughout his career, Brazel, along with Marcus, took undergraduate and graduate students into the field, to places like Silverton, Colo., to study snow and ice processes; and Arcosanti, Ariz., to study desert microclimates.

“Tony always treated his students as respected colleagues, stressed the importance of quality data, and emphasized the camaraderie of field research,” says Nancy Selover, who now serves in a role Brazel also held, as Arizona State Climatologist. “As one of Tony’s many students, I can attest to his patience and guidance, from setting up the equipment to monitoring, analyses, and writing up the research article. While many climatologists specialize, to the exclusion of geography in their research, Tony is very much a geographer, framing his climate work with the geographic context of the region.”

Brazel transitioned to his first leadership position in 1979 when he became director of the Laboratory of Climatology at ASU and was designated by then governor Bruce Babbitt as the Arizona State Climatologist. In this role, he met with representatives of state and federal agencies as well as local industries to develop a climate research agenda focusing on topics critical to Arizona’s people and economy. He led research on topics such as solar energy, rainfall intensity, borderland climate, lake evaporation, climate and urban development, dust storm generation, and other related climate change issues.

Brazel held the role of State Climatologist for 20 years, until 1999. His skills and passion for collaboration were essential. “Tony’s interactions with government officials, National Weather Service employees, and private companies and individuals, aptly demonstrate his versatility in linking with a multitude of different groups in promoting climate research,” says ASU President’s Professor Randy Cerveny, a colleague in the School of Geographical Science and Urban Planning in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

In the 1990s, Brazel’s collaborations with colleagues at ASU grew, leading to participation on numerous federally-funded initiatives focused on aspects of the environment and sustainability. He became co-principal investigator on several undertakings of the Central Arizona-Phoenix Long Term Ecological Research Project, which investigates urban ecology in arid environments with an interdisciplinary perspective that includes biological, physical, social and engineering scientists as well as community partners. He directed the Southwest Center for Environmental Research and Policy (SCERP), a consortium of 10 US and Mexican universities focusing on the environment of the border region.

Over the course of his career, Brazel served as an administrator at ASU for 22 years, including 10 years as chair, interim director and associate director of ASU’s geography program, as well as his roles with the Laboratory of Climatology, Graduate College, and SCERP.

Brazel has made numerous contributions to the larger climatology community as well, publishing more than 170 professional publications, serving on the board of Urban Environments of the American Meteorological Society, on the editorial board of the “Annals of the Association of American Geographers,” and as a visiting professor in the US, Canada, Israel, Singapore and Saudi Arabia. In 1987 he became a fellow of the Explorer’s Club for contributing to scientific knowledge in the field of geographical exploration or allied sciences; and in 1997, a fellow of American Association for the Advancement of Science for his contributions on high mountains, and ice and snow environments. In 2010, the Association of American Geographers Climate Specialty Group selected him for its lifetime achievement award.

“Many of Tony’s achievements are discernable enough from his CV – what is much less obvious but, I believe, much more important is the living legacy Tony has created in a long line of graduate students that span the decades. Not only has Tony produced his own remarkable cadre of PhD advisees, but he has touched so many students who simply took his classes, had him as a formal advisor, knew him as an informal adviser and confidante, and perhaps most telling, those who got to know and appreciate his insight and humble wisdom in the field,” says Andrew Comrie of the University of Arizona, where he is a professor of Geography, associate vice president for research and dean of the Graduate College.

In describing his post-retirement plans, Brazel says, “I wish to continue collaborative research activity, advising graduate students, and participating on national committees and editorial responsibilities. I would also love to return to the icefields I first saw almost 50 years ago.”

Written by Barbara Trapido-Lurie
School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning

Carol Hughes,
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences