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William Gray, 86, Pioneer Of Hurricane Meteorology

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Pioneering meteorologist William Gray, right, with Phil Klotzbach, his former student at Colorado State University. Gray died April 16 at the age of 86.

Pioneering meteorologist William Gray, who devised seasonal forecasting for hurricane activity, died earlier today surrounded by his family in Fort Collins, Colorado. He was 86.

His death was announced by the Colorado State University News Service, but word of his passing was posted on Facebook before the university’s official announcement.

Gray joined the CSU faculty in 1961 and began his forecasting of seasonal hurricane activity in 1984. His research led him to the conclusion that hurricane activity is cyclical. During active cycles, Gray said, conditions that are conducive to hurricane formation–such as unusually warm ocean water and minimal upper level winds–are often present during the summer and fall hurricane season.

Active cycles can last 20 or more years, and then are followed by extended periods of less activity.

Although Gray’s career at Colorado State spanned more than forty years, he gained national notice for his accurate forecasts of seasonal hurricane formation in the 1980s. His fame increased when hurricane formation in the Atlantic Basin entered an active cycle in 1995.

Although his seasonal forecasts were not always exactly accurate, he was seldom far off the mark.

Since Gray’s first seasonal forecast, more than 20 weather forecasting agencies have started issuing their own seasonal forecasts.

Gray also was a teacher and mentor for students at CSU, and many of his students have gone on to establish their own reputations in meteorology. In an eulogy to his mentor, CSU alumnus Phil Klotzbach, who now directs CSU’s annual hurricane seasonal forecasts, recalled far-ranging discussions with Gray on such diverse topics as the Civil War and obscure Major League Baseball statistics.

Klotzbach recalled that Gray considered him a suitable student after he correctly answered Gray’s three-part question about who held the single-season record for runs batted in, which team did he play for, and how many RBIs did he have.

When he correctly answered that Hack Wilson of the Chicago Cubs set the record with 191 RBIs in 1930, “Dr. Gray said he knew I would make a good project member,” Klotzbach recalled.

Despite his impressive career, Gray was “dismissive” about his own significant accomplishments in meteorology, Klotzbach said.

“The humility that he has demonstrated throughout his career is something that we would all do well to emulate,” Klotzbach said.

Gray was born in Detroit, Michigan on Oct. 9, 1929. He was the eldest son of Ulysses S. Gray and Beatrice Mason Gray. The family moved to Washington, D.C. in 1939. He played high school baseball and football at Wilson High School and became an avid fan of the Washington Senators.

Gray hoped to play professional baseball. But a severe knee injury ended that dream.

He graduated from George Washington University in 1952.

Gray joined the US Air Force in 1953 and was commissioned a second lieutenant. He served overseas as a weather forecast officer and served in the Air Force Reserves after leaving active duty. He attained the rank of lieutenant colonel before retiring from the Reserves.

After leaving the Air Force, Gray obtained master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Chicago. He joined the newly formed Department of Atmospheric Science at CSU in 1961.

He married Nancy Price on Oct. 1, 1954. They had four children–Sarah, Anne, Janet, and Robert.

Nancy Gray was very active for many years in Fort Collins community affairs and politics, and served as mayor of Fort Collins from 1980-81 before her death in 2001.

Gray worked many years with the United Nations World Meteorological Organization. He initiated and organized the first WMO International Workshop on Tropical Cyclones in Bangkok in 1985. He traveled the world and maintained collaborations with prominent researchers in the field of tropical meteorology throughout his career.

Gray received many professional awards for his accomplishments in meteorology, including the first Robert and Joanne Simpson Award in 2014.

Gray had strong disagreement with the science behind the human-induced global warming hypothesis and devoted the major portion of his recent years to research in this area.

Gray is survived by two daughters: Sarah, of San Diego, California; and Janet, of Fort Collins. He also is survived by his son Robert and two grandsons, Mason and Liam of San Diego.

Officials at CSU said they will announce details about a celebration of his life and donations in his memory.

Willie Drye is a contributing editor for National Geographic News. His latest book, For Sale–American Paradise, is available from Lyons Press.