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"In tropical cyclones, he's got the best legacy of anyone," says Greg Holland, a senior scientist at NCAR who did his doctoral work under Gray -- and now finds himself at odds with his former mentor's theories. "He's got former students running major organizations around the world."
Their criticism of Gray has nothing to do with his age or his politics, and a lot to do with his science and his personal conduct, his opponents say. Gray's view that the earth's bump in temperature over the past few decades -- nineteen of the twenty hottest years on record have occurred in the last quarter-century -- is primarily a result of natural processes, not industry-generated greenhouse gases, has yet to cohere into peer-reviewed research. But he continues to hammer away at other scientists, ridiculing their computer models and talking about "agenda-driven science" and a global-warming "hoax" perpetrated in order to obtain funding for more research.
"They say I insult them," he says, chuckling, "because I bring up this one verboten thing, the motivation for their research."
But weeding out agendas in climate research is no easy task these days. "Climate change is shot through with politics," notes Roger Pielke Jr., a CU professor of environmental studies who specializes in science policy issues. "There's no such thing as a pure science of climate change anymore, because it's such a political issue."
The popular notion of the global-warming debate is "a cartoonish image of alarmists on one side and skeptics on the other," Pielke says, but the underlying situation is more complicated. He considers himself a "non-skeptic heretic" in the fray, someone who accepts that global warming is occurring but questions the knee-jerk policy responses -- for example, the simplistic notion that cutting carbon-dioxide emissions will prevent future mega-storms like Katrina.
"One of the frustrations is that this has become a proxy war for something else," he says. "It's devolved into a battle to make everyone think the same as a prerequisite to taking action. That's not how politics works."
"It's become like debating abortion," says Phil Klotzbach, a doctoral candidate at CSU who's taken the lead in the annual hurricane-forecasting program that Gray, his advisor, launched 22 years ago. "People need to look at the data and see what the data shows rather than having blinders on."
Klotzbach has tried to steer clear of the larger global-warming furor, preferring to focus on hurricanes in his work. But he sees value in Gray's self-appointed role as a skeptic. "He's one of the few dissenting voices, and it's important to have another perspective," he says.
There are people who embrace Gray as a plain-speaking tribal elder, a kind of braking mechanism on a movement they think is speeding toward too-hasty conclusions, fueled by an alarmist popular media that loves doomsday stories and is eager to put to rest any uncertainties about our peril. ("In the past five years or so, the serious debate has quietly ended," Time declared in a recent overheated cover story.) There are others who regard him as needlessly stirring controversy with inflammatory statements, playing into the hands of global-warming naysayers at a time when calm analysis and serious action is required. And there are some, longtime admirers he's alienated or dismayed, who fear that the scientific reputation Gray's insulting the most is his own.
But Gray plans to keep to his stormy path. His wife passed away a few years ago, his kids are grown, and his days are no longer filled with classes and faculty meetings. "I'm going to give the rest of my life to working on this stuff," he says. "I'm going to keep going until they put me in a box. I like what Dylan Thomas said about going kicking and screaming into the dark night."
The first hurricane Bill Gray got to know intimately was Helene, the wildest gal of the entire 1958 season. He flew into her arms in a B-50 Superfortress, a bomber converted to reconnaissance work, as she skirted the coast of the Carolinas. His mentor, Herbert Riehl, talked the pilot into staying around 1,500 feet, so that he and Gray could observe from the canopy the workings of the storm below. As washboard turbulence buffeted the plane and the wind screamed at 150 miles per hour, Gray had a good look at the kind of raw fury that sea and air could conspire to summon.
"It was exciting," he recalls. "I think we took Dramamine."
Growing up in Washington, D.C., Gray had been obsessed with baseball. He was a right-handed pitcher of some promise, but a bum knee kept him out of the majors. The possibility of getting drafted during the Korean War prompted him to enlist in the Air Force. He'd majored in geography as an undergraduate, and his grades were good enough to get him into a weather-forecasting program. The Air Force sent him to the University of Chicago to study meteorology for a year; after his service was up, he returned to Chicago to do graduate work with Riehl, a pioneer in the study of tropical storms. Riehl soon moved to CSU to launch its atmospheric-science department. Gray followed, joining the faculty in 1961.