September 1, 2006 Bill Gray, the lead author of closely-watched seasonal hurricane forecasts, is passing the torch to his collaborator Phil Klotzbach, a man whose accomplishments are all the more surprising considering he's only 26 years old. Klotzbach is the rising star of the Tropical Meteorology Project, a Colorado State University research center where Gray, 76, will stay on as director. The center's seasonal forecasts are closely watched nationally, including by insurance companies, which use them to predict damage and set premiums.
- Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale
- Meteorological history of Hurricane Katrina
- National Hurricane Center
- List of major natural disasters in the United States
FT. COLLINS, Colo. -- One of the country's leading hurricane experts is stepping down after three decades of forecasting. Meteorologist Bill Gray at Colorado State University has passed the torch to a man whose young age and accomplishments may surprise you.
"Our forecast went out on my birthday, so I did 21 interviews on my birthday," says Phil Klotzbach. "It was quite a fun way to spend the day."
Twenty-one interviews on his 26th birthday. When this fresh-faced young man speaks, the country's hurricane experts listen.
Klotzbach is the new atmospheric scientist at CSU Atmospheric Science responsible for predicting how many hurricanes will develop this year. After 26 named storms last year, those are big shoes to fill. Klotzbach replaces 76-year-old Gray, who's been forecasting hurricanes longer than his new successor has been alive.
"I have a great deal of confidence in him -- as much or more confidence than I have in myself now," Gray tells DBIS.
"I just think it's exciting," Klotzbach says. "I mean, I like forecasting and kinda sticking your neck out there, so I think that is pretty fun."
Other than being a self-confessed weather geek, Klotzbach is a typical 26-year-old. He has a passion for hiking, biking and baseball. "I can think about the Red Sox even more than I think about hurricanes," he says.
Insurance companies will use Klotzbach's seasonal forecasts to predict damage and set premiums. He says, "To be a good forecaster, the key is to be right, you know, much more frequently than you are wrong. I mean, this the first year I've been it, so obviously I hope my forecast does well. If the forecast doesn't go well, it's a little more in my hands." And he knows the pressure's on to be right -- all of the time.
BACKGROUND: Since 1984 William Gray has been the "official" source for predicting the annual hurricane season, which was a record-breaker in 2005. At 76, he is passing the torch to 26-year-old Phil Klotzbach, a member of Gray's ongoing research project to continue improving hurricane probability forecasts.
ABOUT HURRICANES: A hurricane is a type of tropical cyclone, a low-pressure system that usually forms in the tropics and has winds that circulate counterclockwise near the earth's surface. Storms are considered hurricanes when their wind speeds surpass 74 MPH. Every hurricane arises from the combination of warm water and moist warm air. Tropical thunderstorms drift out over warm ocean waters and encounter winds coming in from near the equator. Warm, moist air from the ocean surface rises rapidly, encounters cooler air, and condensed into water vapor to form storm clouds, releasing heat in the process. This heat causes the condensation process to continue, so that more and more warm moist air is drawn into the developing storm, creating a wind pattern that spirals around the relatively calm center, or eye, of the storm, much like water swirling down a drain. The winds keep circling and accelerating to form a classic cyclone pattern.
RATING HURRICANES: Hurricanes are categorized according to the strength of their winds according to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane scale. They are rated from lowest wind speeds (Category 1) to highest (Category 5). But even lower category storms can cause a great deal of damage, mostly from storm surges -- when water is pushed towards the show by strong winds and combines with normal tides to create hurricane storm tides -- and the resulting flooding. The worst devastation from hurricane Katrina, for example, occurred when flooding caused the New Orleans levees to fail.
WHAT IS DOPPLER RADAR: Doppler radar uses a well-known effect of light called the Doppler shift. Just as a train whistle will sound higher as it approaches a platform and then become lower in pitch as it moves away, light emitted by a moving object is perceived to increase in frequency (a blue shift) if it is moving toward the observer; if the object is moving away from us, it will be shifted toward the red end of the spectrum. Doppler radar sends out radio waves that bounce off objects in the air, such as raindrops or snow crystals, and then measures how much the frequency changes in returning radio waves to better determine wind direction and speed.
The American Meteorological Society contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.