Research meteorologist Michael Black’s colleagues at the Hurricane Research Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s lab in Miami marvel at a revolutionary idea he had while chasing a massive hurricane from Hawaii to coastal Mexico.
Black, in his 32 years with the division, pioneered using airborne radar data and GPS dropwindsondes — wind-, temperature-, and moisture-measuring devices dropped from hurricane-hunter planes — that sample the eyewall of hurricanes. He helped revolutionize how meteorologists estimate the intensity of tropical storms.
This work led to Black and his colleagues, James Franklin and Krystal Valde, receiving the prestigious Banner I. Miller Award from the American Meteorological Society in 2004.
Said fellow HRD research meteorologist Stanley Goldenberg: “It was one of those serendipitous moments while on a mission flying [into] Hurricane Guillermo in the East Pacific in 1997 that he said to James Franklin, who worked for the Hurricane Research Division, ‘Hey, how about we drop a few of these in the eyewall? We’ve never dropped in the eyewall before.’
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“The insight into the vertical structure of the wind we saw from those was mind-blowing and, as a result, it became regular practice immediately,” Goldenberg said.
He changed how the Hurricane Center estimated hurricane winds.
Peter Dodge, Hurricane Research Division.
The knowledge proved a primary factor in the upgrading of Hurricane Andrew from a Category 4 to a Category 5 storm 10 years after it devastated South Miami-Dade in August 1992.
Black died Saturday at age 62 after battling numerous ailments, including diabetes and pneumonia, his daughter Brinn Black said. Boards posted inside the HRD office reveal that Black flew 478 eyewall passes through 2015. He didn’t fly in 2016, so only director Frank Marks had surpassed him, said Goldenberg.
Born in Fort Belvoir in northern Virginia to an Army father and his wife, a Prussian refugee, Black graduated with a physical science/meteorology degree from Old Dominion University in Virginia in 1981. Black joined the Hurricane Research Division in 1985, “a feather in his cap, he felt like he belonged,” said his first wife Sandi Thomas.
Black was a key member of the NOAA team that pioneered the unmanned system called the Global Hawk. In partnership with NASA, Black used the Global Hawk dropwindsonde observations to improve hurricane-forecast guidance. “He was a great team guy,” said colleague Peter Dodge who studied hurricanes Elena, Hugo, Gilbert, and Andrew with Black.
In 2005, Black was a key contact in the Miami Herald’s investigative series, Blind Eye, that looked at deep cuts in research funding that threatened hurricane forecasting. “Congress can think they’re funding hurricanes properly when they’re not,” Black told the Herald.
“Normally, federal employees can’t go out and talk budget to the public. But that Blind Eye article had an impact on funding for hurricane research and he did that at a risk,” said Goldenberg.
Mike had a big heart and was an extremely good friend to both myself and many others in the scientific community. Years from now many scientists will still be referencing the papers he co-authored, so that may be his scientific legacy. But his friendship and big heart will be what I remember most about him.
John Kaplan, Hurricane Research Division.
In an email, retired researcher Pete Black wrote: “Mike … became an inspiration for us all. We shared many memories together on numerous hurricane flights, becoming known as the ‘Black brothers.’ We were certainly ‘hurricane brothers,’ enjoying new insights into how hurricanes worked ‘on the fly’ while at the same time marveling at the beauty of it all.”
His daughters Brinn, a country singer, and Austyn recall another side of their scientific dad. Black temporarily relocated his family to Virginia after Andrew destroyed their South Miami-Dade home. “Dad was big at surprises,” Brinn said. That Christmas, Black “showed up with a trash bag with all my Barbie dolls, mildewed a bit, and we washed them off. Made them close to brand new again. He wanted to surprise us.”
Black’s survivors include his children Brinn, Jordyn, Austyn, Michael and Brian Black. A celebration of life will be at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Hurricane Research Division, 4301 Rickenbacker Cswy., Miami. Donations in Black’s name can be made to the Cumberland Heights Spiritual Fund. Black’s ashes will be scattered by a NOAA hurricane-hunter plane into the eye of a hurricane.