Hurricane Forecast Pioneer William Gray Dies at Age 86

  • Colorado State professor emeritus of atmospheric science
  • Gray developed method for Atlantic seasonal storm forecasts

William Gray

Photographer: Lynne Sladky

He changed the way the world looks at hurricanes, and in later years he challenged the science behind climate change, but most people will probably remember Bill Gray as the creator of the modern seasonal forecast for Atlantic storms.

Gray died Saturday at the age of 86. He was professor emeritus of atmospheric science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where he had served as a full-time professor from 1961 to 2005.

“There were efforts to look at seasonal predictions all the way back to the 1930s but none of them amounted to much,” said Chris Landsea, science and operations officer at the National Hurricane Center’s Technology & Science Branch. “He has shown that there is skill, that you can do better, much more than just flipping a coin or random chance.”

Since Gray developed the system in 1984, the outlooks have become ubiquitous, with commercial forecasters and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration all issuing seasonal predictions for Atlantic tropical storm and hurricane development. Colorado State still does, now under lead author Phil Klotzbach.

Last week, Klotzbach called for 12 named storms, five of which would become hurricanes and two becoming major systems. That’s about an average year for the Atlantic.

Understanding Storms

“Most people know him from the seasonal forecast, but there were contributions about the understanding of hurricanes,” said Eric Blake, a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center.

In 1968, Gray wrote a paper about the genesis of tropical cyclones, the class of storms that includes hurricanes and typhoons. He tied together many of the factors that the storms needed to form and showed that wind shear can damage their structure.

“It’s still a landmark contribution,” said Landsea, who like Blake and Klotzbach studied under Gray. “I think before that paper, parts of it were understood, but it wasn’t put together in a coherent whole. He put it all together and demonstrated it globally. A lot of forecasters around the world changed their methodology.”

Legacy Remembered

Blake and Klotzbach remember him fondly. He graduated 70 masters or Ph.D. students, according to a statement by the university.

“There wasn’t really a more generous adviser out there, he really helped me get started,” Blake said.

Blake also joked while Gray was well-known among meteorologists, in Fort Collins, it was his late wife Nancy, a former city mayor, who had the bigger name.

“In Fort Collins, he was always Mr. Nancy Gray,” Blake said.

Gray served in the Air Force as a weather forecaster in the 1950s and continued in the Air Force Reserve, retiring in 1974 as a lieutenant colonel, according to the university. He and his wife had four children, Sarah; Anne, who died before him; Janet; and Robert.

Climate Change

In recent years, he had been known for his challenges to the science behind human-caused climate change. In March 2015 he wrote a column in the Coloradoan criticizing a Fort Collins plan to reduce its use of fossil fuels.

“He has always been at the forefront of a being a free-thinker,” Landsea said. “All of us as scientists need to be skeptical. If we are not being skeptical, we are not being scientists.”

He also had a sense of humor. Every year on Aug. 20, Gray went into the offices where the Colorado State hurricane researchers worked, rang a bell and announced: “I have been appointed by Chicken Little to inform you that the heart of the hurricane season has begun.”

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