Discover Dialogue

Colorado State University meteorologist William Gray flew into his first hurricane in 1958 and got hooked. He's now one of the leading experts in forecasting the Atlantic hurricane season.

Aug 1, 1999 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:06 AM


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It must be scary flying into a hurricane--right? Not particularly. I've flown in 15 to 20 storms over the years. You can have very turbulent flights, you can get a little sick and throw up, but it's reasonably safe. There have been very, very few planes lost, and most of them were in the 1940s and 1950s.

How many Atlantic hurricanes do you anticipate this year? We're calling for 14 named storms, 9 hurricanes, and 4 major storms. The last four years have been the most active consecutive four-year period.

What's going on? We think it's due to the circulation pattern of the Atlantic Ocean. When it is slower, as it was in the late 1960s through 1994, we tend to have fewer major hurricanes. When it is faster, as it apparently has been since 1995, we see more intense hurricanes.

Why are we obsessed with natural disasters? People are curious when other people have major problems. And we're seeing more damage. The population is going up, and now we have many more people and much more property value in harm's way. In the next 20 to 30 years, we're likely to see a lot more major land-falling storms in the United States than in the last 30 years. If so, we're going to see hurricane damage at unprecedented levels. It's an international problem, too, because the rapid population growth in East Asia, Australia, and India tends to be along vulnerable coastlines.

So where would you live if you were free to choose? I like the tropics. I can understand why people flock to beaches and live in vulnerable areas, because they're good places to live. In any one place you may go 20, 30, 50 years between hurricanes. Why not enjoy the good weather during that period? But you must realize it's going to cost you more.

Do you think we will ever be able to outsmart nature? As you study it more, you learn there are some things you can predict pretty well and some things you can't.

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