Fascination With Storms Spawned a Career : Weather: Colorado professor who is a leading hurricane forecaster studies global trends, but his focus has been on the Atlantic.
During countless Florida vacations, William M. Gray would gaze out to sea and wonder if a storm was brewing. Today, he is one of the world’s leading long-term hurricane forecasters.
Gray teaches tropical meteorology and forecasting at Colorado State University. He also predicts--up to a year in advance--how many hurricanes will develop in any given year in the Atlantic and Caribbean.
In a decade of forecasts, Gray was exactly right for three years and off by only one on two occasions.
“As far as we know, he’s the only one doing it,” said university spokesman Tom Milligan. “With as much attention as he’s gotten since he’s been doing this, you’d think someone else would come forward, but they sure haven’t.”
Gray’s journey from a childhood in Washington, D.C., to the college town of Ft. Collins in the foothills of the Rockies was an unexpected one.
“Fifteen years ago I didn’t imagine I’d be doing this,” the unassuming 64-year-old said.
While serving in the Air Force during the Korean War, Gray took a crash course in meteorology and became a weather forecaster.
“Those were the days of pre-satellite data, when the airplane was king and flew into storms,” Gray said.
After the war, he went to the University of Chicago where he earned a doctorate in geophysical science. It also is where he met his mentor, Herbert Riehl, who in 1958 succeeded in getting federal funding to establish the National Hurricane Research Project.
In 1960, Riehl moved to Colorado State University to found its Department of Atmospheric Science. Gray followed him to CSU two years later.
Gray’s landlocked locale doesn’t seem to have hampered his work. “You can study these storms anywhere in the world,” Gray said.
But he keeps one telling memento in his office, a poster of a placid Florida beach at sunset.
Gray studies global tropical storms, but his focus has been on storms in the Atlantic basin--their intensity, change, structure and motion. He said the Atlantic has about 12% of the world’s storms.
Gray bases his hurricane predictions on global climatic weather conditions and statistics he and his colleagues have mapped out over time, including El Nino activity in the Pacific, rainfall in West Africa and stratospheric winds 35 miles above the Earth’s surface.
Since 1984, he has boldly issued yearly hurricane predictions for the Atlantic basin, where the hurricane season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30.
He was right on the mark in 1986, 1991 and 1992. For each of those years, he predicted four hurricanes, and four were observed.
He was off by one in 1985, when he predicted eight hurricanes and there were seven, and in 1990, when he predicted seven hurricanes and there were eight.
His worst year to date was 1989, when he forecast four hurricanes and there were seven.
Although Gray can predict the severity of the next hurricane system, he said no one can determine when or where a storm will strike, not even in an era of Super Doppler computers, satellites and high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft.
“That hasn’t improved much in 30 years,” he said. “Individual storms are very complex. It’s much tougher to predict what will happen tomorrow than storm activity six months from now.”
Gray said a hurricane’s “destruction potential” depends on where it strikes and not necessarily how fast its winds churn.
Hurricane Andrew, which struck southeast Florida in 1992 with winds reaching 145 m.p.h., caused about $30 billion in damage because it hit a densely populated region.
“Intensity depends on where they come in,” he said. “If they come in at a vulnerable place, damage will be extensive.”
His predictions have stirred interest in various storm quarters, including the National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables, Fla.
“He is a good friend of the hurricane center,” said Lixion Avila, who has been tracking storms with the center since 1983. “But we don’t depend on his forecasts because we don’t make long-term predictions.”
Avila and his colleagues issue warnings and watches 72 hours before a tropical storm or hurricane.
Gray draws inspiration for his tropical oceanic studies by hiking the Colorado Rockies. Riehl, now 79 and retired in Denver, taught him that lesson, Gray said.
“Riehl always said he got his best ideas on tropical storms while climbing mountains through snow,” Gray said. “Besides, at 5,000 feet, tropical storms can’t get me here.”