Dr. Robert (Bob) Burpee died Tuesday, July 31, 2007 after a long illness. He was 65. Bob led the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Hurricane Center (NHC) from July 1995 to August 1997, and he served as Director of the NOAA Hurricane Research Division (HRD) from 1993 to 1995.
Bob first came to Miami with his MIT graduate advisor in 1967 to work with the National Hurricane Research Laboratory (NHRL), the forerunner to HRD. Bob worked on the first dynamical hurricane prediction model called SANBAR which was soon implemented into NHC operations. He also developed an interest in tropical waves and studied how the waves move off Africa and occasionally develop into Atlantic hurricanes. This became the basis of Bob’s PhD dissertation at MIT.
In 1971, Bob returned to Miami to work at NHRL as a research meteorologist, and became the head of that group in 1993 as the Director of HRD.
I recall coming to the NHC in 1972 and knowing very little about tropical waves. Being from Oklahoma, I was used to most weather disturbances coming from the west and not from the east like tropical waves. Bob was an acknowledged expert on tropical waves and I recall several discussions in which he patiently explained to me what was known about these disturbances at the time.
In addition to his thesis work, Bob’s major scientific contributions include the “synoptic flow experiment.” Between 1982 and 1996, under Bob’s leadership, NOAA conducted 20 synoptic flow experiments to gather observations in the hurricane’s core and surrounding environment. The NOAA WP-3D (P-3) research aircraft released Omega dropwindsondes (ODWs) to obtain profiles of wind, temperature and humidity. The dropwindsonde observations produced significant improvements in the primary guidance for the NHC official track forecasts. The synoptic flow experiment led to the purchase of the G-IV jet hurricane hunter aircraft, one of the largest investments NOAA has made specifically for hurricane forecasting.
The National Weather Service’s global model typically improves the track forecasts of hurricanes about 10 to 15 percent during the watch/warning periods when the jet data are assimilated into the model. I doubt seriously if today’s operational surveillance program would be as robust as it is if not for Bob’s research and leadership.
I remember miscommunications that occurred with some Florida emergency managers shortly after Bob became Director of the NHC during Hurricane Erin in 1995. Immediately after that hurricane, Bob and I met with then Florida Governor Lawton Chiles which led to the formation of the NOAA/FEMA Hurricane Liaison Team which is still functioning today. Shortly after the establishment of the HLT, I recall Bob calling me in his office and asking me to be the primary coordinator between the NHC and the emergency managment community. That was the beginning of a long and productive relationship that endures today.
I owe a great debt of gratitude to Bob Burpee as does every resident living in hurricane vulnerable states for his tremendous contributions to our Nation’s Hurricane Program.
Input for this tribute came from several members of NOAA’s HRD and NHC.