Hurricane researcher’s ashes released into Hurricane Michael

Weather Blog

From the NOAA Hurricane Research Division:

On July 14, 2017, AOML was saddened by the loss of Michael Black, a long-term research meteorologist with the Hurricane Research Division (HRD). Michael passed away unexpectedly at 62 years of age. He was a valued friend and colleague whose pioneering research on Doppler radar and the use of Global Positioning System (GPS) dropsondes paved the way for a new methodology to more accurately assess the intensity of tropical cyclones.

After his passing, his family respectfully requested that at some future time his ashes be released into a hurricane. This is a special honor bestowed on only a few individuals who have been involved in hurricane research and/or operations.

For the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season, it was noted the 13th named storm would be called Michael. On October 7th, Tropical Storm Michael formed in the southwestern Caribbean Sea, and Michael’s children were notified. They agreed this would be the perfect storm for their father’s final farewell.

Tropical Storm Michael intensified and had already reached Category-3 strength (major hurricane) by the time of the farewell flight. Hurricane Michael would continue intensifying throughout the mission, reaching Category-4 strength by the end of the flight.

On October 9, Brinn Black, Michael’s oldest daughter, carried her father’s ashes onto NOAA’s N42RF WP-3D (“Kermit”) Hurricane Hunter aircraft. The ashes were wrapped in the state flag of Virginia, the state of Michael’s birth.

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At the time of his passing, Michael had flown through the eyes of hurricanes more times than anyone in HRD. To honor this accomplishment, the memorial package also included his Senior Master Eye Rover patch (commemorating Michael’s 400+ hurricane eye penetrations) and his flight-suit name tag.

A highlight for Brinn was being able to sit in the Lead Project Scientist seat aboard the N42RF, a seat occupied many times in the past by her father. After Brinn left the aircraft, the plane departed for its mission into Hurricane Michael.

During the third pass into the eye of Hurricane Michael, the crew called for a moment of silence. A special eulogy and a prayer were read by Aircraft Operations Center technician Michael McAlister, and then Michael’s flag-wrapped ashes were placed in the dropsonde chute and released. Many tears were shed by those among the crew who had flown numerous missions with Michael over the years.

Michael helped pioneer the use of GPS dropsondes to collect data in hurricanes during aircraft missions. The instruments measure barometric pressure, temperature, humidity, wind speed, and wind direction as they fall through the atmosphere toward the ocean surface. The data they provide enable researchers to better understand the changes in a storm’s intensity and its structure.

It was during an east Pacific research mission in 1997 when Mike suggested the flight crew try sampling the eyewall of Hurricane Guillermo with the new GPS dropsondes.

The resulting data were so exceptional it quickly became common practice to sample the eyewall of every tropical cyclone with the instruments. This first eyewall sonde, deployed 22 years ago from the NOAA N42RF, was the same aircraft used for the memorial flight.

As an additional tribute, dropsonde No. 21 was designated in Michael’s honor. The “Michael Black Memorial Sonde” was signed by everyone on the flight before being released into the powerful winds of Hurricane Michael’s eyewall.

This scientific mission into Hurricane Michael served as a fitting send off for a friend and colleague whose research led to major advances in tropical meteorology. Michael would have approved!

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[Article courtesy AOML Keynotes Vol. 22, No. 6]

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