July 28, 2007
He’s called the world’s most famous hurricane expert, not because he likes to fly into hurricanes to experience them up close – which he does – but because of what he’s learned from them, up there, buffeted by the fury of nature. William Gray has developed an intuitive sense when it comes to understanding the atmosphere in its infinite complexity. This intuition rooted in experience allowed him to pioneer the science of hurricane forecasting more than two decades ago, and subsequently to practice his craft with an unprecedented precision that he keeps refining year after year. He and his colleagues have now reached a 95% accuracy rate in predicting the number of major storms and hurricanes that will occur next season. Insurance companies set their premiums, and government emergency-preparedness authorities set their budgets, on the basis of his pioneering work
How has Dr. Gray adapted his methods of prediction in light of global warming, to maintain his accuracy rate? He hasn’t. Dr. Gray views recent climate-change science as meaningless “mush,” the product of simplistic computer models that crudely track a handful of factors and ignore the myriad others that influence the weather. Climate is not a contraption with a set number of easily manipulated variables, as you might find in a child’s science construct. Those who try to reduce the climate to suit the rudiments of computer models, he believes, accomplish nothing but the debasing of science. The models, he has demonstrated time and again, are utter failures, incapable even of explaining the past.
Dr. Gray dates his intimacy with hurricanes from Helene, the strongest in the 1958 season. Together with his renowned mentor at the University of Chicago, Herbert Riehl, they talked the pilot of their plane, a converted B-50 Superfortress bomber, into dangerously close encounters with Helene as she skirted the Carolina coasts. Amid 150-mile-per-hour winds pummelling the plane – “we took Dramamine,” he says – he garnered his first inkling of the awesome force of sea and wind.
That real-world experience, and the many other hurricane-hunting forays that followed over the decades, gave him the insights that would lead to brilliant discoveries of how weather and climate worked, insights that theorizing in the abstract could not have produced.
After years of collecting data by flying into storms off Florida, for example, and finding no meaningful local patterns, he decided to investigate whether the forces commanding the immensely variable storms of the Atlantic lay oceans away. He searched for, and found, distant relationships – El Nino in the Pacific correlated with Atlantic storms, as did Atlantic hurricanes and quasi-biannual oscillations. QBIOs are winds in the tropical stratosphere that reverse their course every 12 to 14 months. The westerly QBIOs, Dr. Gray discovered, foretold major Atlantic storms, as did rain in West Africa and Caribbean sea-level pressure.
“The problem was that we’d been looking locally,” Dr. Gray explains. “You had to look globally.” When Dr. Gray says “look,” he means that literally. The fruits of measurement and observation, he believes, can be trusted. Those of theoretical models at odds with the real world are likelier to mislead than to inform.
In 1984, Dr. Gray publicly predicted 17 major events for the coming hurricane season, seven hurricanes and 10 named storms. Startlingly, 17 occurred, almost as predicted (five hurricanes and 12 named storms materialized). He has been publicly predicting ever since, with a success rate that has been growing over the years as new insights, born of new experiences, led him to more suppositions about how the atmosphere could and could not work.
“In tropical cyclones, he’s got the best legacy of anyone,” acknowledges Greg Holland, who earned his doctorate under Dr. Gray’s tutelage and is now a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “He’s got former students running major organizations around the world.” Yet this former student, like many of the others whose careers Dr. Gray launched, now disparages Dr. Gray’s skepticism of climate change, and believes his time has passed.
Many of those former students now running major organizations, and others too, now shun this legendary figure in his field, saying that he has marginalized himself. Most funders now refuse to back his work at Colorado State University, some whispering that his success rate in predictions has come of dumb luck. To carry on with the limited funding available to him – he still receives two modest research grants, one from the National Science Foundation for hurricane research, the other from Lexington Insurance Co. of Boston for U.S. hurricane landfall probability prediction – Dr. Gray, now in his 70s, has scaled back his projects and also contributed some $100,000 from his retirement savings.
If he recanted on his views of global warming and subscribed to fears of catastrophe, if he rehabilitated himself and embraced computer models over observation, generous funding would almost certainly appear. But Dr. Gray has no intention of recanting: “I have a bit of an obligation, at my age – I was trained to tell the truth. There’s a lot of hogwash in this.”
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute and Consumer Policy Institute, divisions of Energy Probe Research Foundation.
CV OF A DENIER
William Gray is Professor Emeritus of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University, where he has worked since 1961. His many tropical field experiments were directed to the study of cumulus convection, condensation heating, evaporation cooling, sea-air energy-moisture exchange and hurricane formation. He heads the university’s Tropical Meteorology Project, which publishes yearly forecasts for tropical storms, named storms, typhoons, hurricanes and intense hurricanes. He holds M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees in meteorology and geophysical sciences from the University of Chicago.