Hurricane Science Legend Dr. Robert Simpson Dies at Age 102

By Dr. Jeff Masters
Published: 11:29 PM GMT die 19o December, anno 2014

Dr. Robert Simpson, one of the originators of the familiar Saffir-Simpson scale, passed away peacefully in his sleep today at the age of 102. Dr. Simpson began his meteorology career in 1940. During the early 1950s, he urged the U.S. Weather Bureau management to fund modest levels of hurricane research, but budgets didn't allow this. However, the devastating 1954 Atlantic hurricane season changed the minds of several New England congressmen. A special appropriation was passed to improve the Weather Bureau's hurricane warning system, and Bob Simpson was appointed to head up the National Hurricane Research Project in 1955. He held that post until 1959, when he left the Project to finish his doctorate in meteorology at the University of Chicago. Bob led Project Stormfury in the early 1960s, which explored the use of cloud seeding to modify hurricanes. Although Stormfury failed in its goal of reducing the destructiveness of hurricanes, the observational data and storm lifecycle research helped improve hurricane track and intensity forecasts. Bob went on to become the director of the National Hurricane Center (NHC) from 1967 - 1974.

Figure 1. Bob Simpson (seated) with (from left to right) NHC hurricane specialists Dan Brown, John Cangialosi, Eric Blake, Todd Kimberlain; hurricane scientist Dr. Bill Gray of Colorado State; and former NHC director Max Mayfield. Photo taken by Bill Thorson in April 2012 at the 30th Conference on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology of the American Meteorological Society in Ponte Verda Beach, Florida.

My experience hearing Dr. Simpson speak
I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Simpson speak back in April 2012, when he gave the opening talk at the 30th Conference on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology of the American Meteorological Society in Ponte Verda Beach, Florida. He was in amazing shape for a 99 year-old! He described his work with civil engineer Herb Saffir, who worked for the United Nations to develop low-cost housing all over the world that could withstand strong winds. Saffir and Simpson worked together, using data from aerial surveys of hurricane damage that began with Hurricane Audrey in 1957, to help develop their famous scale, which assigns a Category 1 through 5 rating to a storm based on its winds. The Saffir-Simpson scale was finally published in 1973, and gained widespread popularity after Neil Frank replaced Simpson as the director of NHC in 1974. The audience gave Dr. Simpson a standing ovation for making the effort to travel to the conference and give a talk.

Figure 2. Dr. Robert Simpson addresses the 30th Conference on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology of the American Meteorological Society on April 15, 2012, assisted by session chair Dr. Greg Holland.

Dr. Simpson and the Great 1919 Atlantic-Gulf Hurricane
In a remarkable 1989 interview conducted by hurricane scientist Dr. Ed Zipser of the University of Utah, Dr. Simpson related his experience with the great 1919 Atlantic-Gulf Hurricane, the year that he entered elementary school, which led to his life-long interest in hurricanes:

”I was attending the David Hirsh School on North Beach in Corpus Christi when the great 1919 hurricane struck— the worst Corpus Christi has ever experienced. As luck would have it, the hurricane arrived on a Sunday morning. If it had been on a school day, I would probably have been among the several hundred casualties, because the school building, which was sought out by residents as a shelter, was destroyed. In this hurricane we were all less impressed with the wind than with the spectacular rise of water. The storm surge, as viewed from our near-shoreline residence, arrived in two sudden rises. The first put water about two feet over downtown street levels and occurred in a matter of ten to fifteen minutes at most. The second came one to two hours later when, in a matter of minutes, flood levels rose 6-8 feet over street level. This began to flood the interior of our house which was built quite high. The family had to swim—with me on my father’s back—three blocks in near hurricane force winds to safe shelter in the courthouse— the only high building in the downtown area. A lot of what I saw frightened me, but also supplied a fascination that left me with a lifelong interest in hurricanes.”

Bob Simpson had a huge impact on hurricane science, and he will be greatly missed.

Jeff Masters

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About The Author
Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.

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