Meteorologist behind hurricane scale, Robert Simpson, honored at 101 years of age

Robert Simpson, 101, on March 8, 2014 at Washington, D.C. luncheon celebrating his life and career. (Darlene Shields) Robert Simpson, 101, on March 8, 2014 at Washington, D.C. luncheon celebrating his life and career. (Darlene Shields)

The Saffir-Simpson scale, which assigns 1-5 ratings for hurricane intensity, has become a household term each summer and fall when destructive tropical tempests threaten our coastlines.  On Saturday, meteorologists from as far away as Florida and Texas convened for a luncheon in Washington Saturday to celebrate the visionary behind the scale, Robert Simpson.

Simpson, who turned 101 in November, is legendary in the field of meteorology.  In addition to his work with engineer Hebert Saffir to develop the Saffir-Simpson scale,  he championed and led hurricane research over several decades, served as director of the National Hurricane Center (NHC) from 1968-1974, and was on faculty at the University of Virginia in the late 1970s, among many other accomplishments.

His life story is fascinating.  His interest in meteorology was kindled at the age of 6 in his hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas when a hurricane’s storm surge interrupted his family’s afternoon supper, and was forced to flee to higher ground mid-course.  He studied physics in college and graduate school, but took a job as a high school band instructor in the midst of the Great Depression before gaining employment as a weather observer for the U.S. Weather Bureau in 1940.  He then spent decades in hurricane research and forecasting, earning his Ph.D. in meteorology at the University of Chicago along the way, before being appointed  director of the NHC.

Robert Simpson, during his tenure as National Hurricane Center director. (NOAA)
Robert Simpson, during his tenure as National Hurricane Center director. (NOAA)

“No meteorologist in the 20th century has done more to advance hurricane science than Bob Simpson,” says Jeff Halverson, who served as a post-doc under Joanne Simpson, Simpson’s wife, at NASA. “He was a powerful, motivating force who worked steadily behind the scenes to establish major hurricane research and forecast agencies, including the National Hurricane Research Program (NHRP) in 1955 and a dedicated hurricane prediction office, Miami’s National Hurricane Center, in 1968.  He directed the nation’s only hurricane modification experiment, Project Stormfury, starting in 1962.  Few people realize that Bob established a tropical weather observatory at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, from which the world-famous Keeling Curve of CO2 concentration is derived.”

Via NOAA: "Robert Simpson, original director of the Hurricane Research Project, and his wife Joanne Simpson, head of Project STORMFURY, in Roosevelt Roads NAS, Puerto Rico in 1964. STORMFURY was a government project that investigated the effect of silver iodide to "seed" hurricanes and decrease their intensity. Hurricane modification studies dominated NHRL research for many years."
Via NOAA: “Robert Simpson, original director of the Hurricane Research Project, and his wife Joanne Simpson, head of Project STORMFURY, in Roosevelt Roads NAS, Puerto Rico in 1964. STORMFURY was a government project that investigated the effect of silver iodide to “seed” hurricanes and decrease their intensity. Hurricane modification studies dominated NHRL research for many years.”

Speakers at Saturday’s luncheon, including former NHC directors Max Mayfield and Neil Frank (who succeeded Simpson), spoke at length about Simpson’s sterling character, mentoring, and forward-thinking.  They frequently mentioned the depth of the romance between he and his late wife Joanne Simpson, a giant in meteorology in her own right.

Neil Frank (left), Robert Simpson (center), and Max Mayfield (right) (Darlene Shields)
Neil Frank (left), Robert Simpson (center), and Max Mayfield (right) at luncheon in Washington, D.C., March 8. (Darlene Shields)

The moving event, convened by the Explorers Club Washington Group and held at the Cosmos club in Dupont Circle, was emceed by retired Washington meteorologist Bob Ryan and organized by Jack Williams, former USA Today Weather Editor, and contributor to the Capital Weather Gang.

Simpson, at age 101, remains healthy and resides in southwest Washington.

Related reading

At 100, weather expert has seen it all

Wikipedia biography

Powerpoint: Diverse contributions of Robert H. Simpson and Joanne Simpson to science and society (Roger Pielke Sr.)

Jason is currently the Washington Post’s weather editor. A native Washingtonian, Jason has been a weather enthusiast since age 10.
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Jason Samenow · March 10, 2014