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.
“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.”
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.
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.