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Ashes Of Pioneering Meteorologist Were Scattered Into Hurricane Michael


Here's a question. What's the best way to say goodbye to a dedicated and innovative hurricane researcher? For this particular researcher, his colleagues decided to make him part of one of last year's biggest storms, Hurricane Michael. NPR's Greg Allen explains.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hurricane researchers are a tight-knit community. For years, Michael Black was a well-known member working at NOAA's Hurricane Research Division on Virginia Key just across the bridge from downtown Miami. Black was a pioneer in the use of small measuring devices dropped from airplanes that record wind speed, air pressure, temperature and humidity. In 1997 on a mission flying through Hurricane Guillermo in the Pacific, he had an audacious idea. Why not drop some of these devices known as dropwindsondes directly into the eye wall of a hurricane?

STAN GOLDENBERG: Twenty-one years ago, I was on that flight.

ALLEN: Stan Goldenberg is a NOAA researcher who worked with Michael Black for more than two decades.

GOLDENBERG: I remember the excitement we felt at seeing these winds and knowing these sondes could handle it.

ALLEN: Since then, more than a thousand dropwindsondes are released into hurricanes every year, providing reams of data to be uploaded into computer models that forecast a storm's track and intensity. Goldenberg says this data has vastly improved forecasts, reducing errors and projecting the tracks of hurricanes by 20 to 25 percent.

GOLDENBERG: It's hard to imagine what hurricane science, forecasting, everything would be like right now without the dropwindsonde data. It's that important.

ALLEN: Michael Black worked at the Hurricane Research Division until he died unexpectedly in 2017 of heart failure. Knowing his dedication to hurricane science, after he died, Black's children asked a rare honor for their father - that his ashes be scattered in a hurricane. Goldenberg says this has been done before.

GOLDENBERG: There have been certain select people that have had the honor. It's like a 21-gun salute for us.

ALLEN: Then it was the question of finding the right hurricane and the right flight. That moment came in October of last year as a new hurricane, serendipitously also called Michael, spun up in the Gulf of Mexico. Black's daughter carried his ashes onto a hurricane hunter flight along with a crew of researchers ready to drop dozens of the dropwindsondes he helped pioneer. After a few passes through the hurricane, the crew held a brief ceremony. Then Black's ashes wrapped in the flag of his home state, Virginia, where dropped into Michael's eye wall. Goldenberg says he thinks his friend and colleague would have approved.

GOLDENBERG: Number one, it was into Hurricane Michael. Number two, you could say he went out - his ashes went out as a dropsonde, in the dropsonde chute.

ALLEN: Black's friends and family also released a functioning dropsonde in Black's honor, one signed with messages of friendship and farewell. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.