Hurricane forecaster's dispute with school focuses on global warming debate
By pioneering the science of seasonal hurricane forecasting and teaching 70 graduate students who now populate the National Hurricane Center and other research outposts, William Gray turned a city far from the stormy seas into a hurricane research mecca.
But now the institution in Fort Collins, Colo., where he has worked for nearly half a century, has told Gray it may end its support of his seasonal forecasting.
As he enters his 25th year of predicting hurricane season activity, Colorado State University officials say handling media inquiries related to Gray's forecasting requires too much time and detracts from efforts to promote other professors' work.
But Gray, a highly visible and sometimes acerbic skeptic of climate change, says that's a "flimsy excuse" for the real motivation — a desire to push him aside because of his global warming criticism.
Among other comments, Gray has said global warming scientists are "brainwashing our children."
Now an emeritus professor, Gray declined to comment on the university's possible termination of promotional support.
But a memo he wrote last year, after CSU officials informed him that media relations would no longer promote his forecasts after 2008, reveals his views:
"This is obviously a flimsy excuse and seems to me to be a cover for the Department's capitulation to the desires of some (in their own interest) who want to reign (sic) in my global warming and global warming-hurricane criticisms," Gray wrote to Dick Johnson, head of CSU's Department of Atmospheric Sciences, and others.
The university may have moderated its stance since last year. Officials said late last week that they intend to support the release of Gray's forecasts as long as they continue to be co-authored by Phil Klotzbach, a former student of Gray's who earned his doctorate last summer, and as long as Klotzbach remains at CSU.
When Klotzbach leaves, he will either produce the seasonal forecasts at his new position, or end them altogether.
Not only does this internal dispute reveal a bit of acrimony at the end of Gray's long career at CSU; it highlights the politically charged atmosphere that surrounds global warming in the United States.
"Bill Gray has come under a lot of fire for his views," said Channel 11 meteorologist Neil Frank, a former director of the National Hurricane Center and a friend of Gray's. "If, indeed, this is happening, it would be really sad that Colorado State is trying to rein in Bill Gray."
CSU officials insist that is not the case.
The dean of the College of Engineering, which oversees atmospheric sciences, said she spoke with Gray about terminating media support for his forecasts solely because of the strain it placed on the college's sole media staffer.
"It really has nothing to do with his stand on global warming," said the dean, Sandra Woods. "He's a great faculty member. He's an institution at CSU."
According to Woods, Gray's forecasts require about 10 percent of the time a media support staff member, Emily Wilmsen, has available for the College of Engineering and its 104 faculty members.
A professor of public relations at Boston University, Donald Wright, questioned why the university would want to pull back its support for Gray now, after he has published his forecasts for a quarter-century.
"It's seems peculiar that this is happening now," Wright said. "Given the national reputation that these reports have, you would think the university would want to continue to promote these forecasts."
Gray, he said, seems to deliver a lot of publicity bang for the buck. The seasonal forecasts are printed in newspapers around the country and splashed across the World Wide Web.
There also seems to be little question that prominent climate scientists have complained to CSU about Gray's vocal skepticism. The head of CSU's Department of Atmospheric Sciences, Dick Johnson, said he has received many comments during recent years about Gray — some supportive, and some not.
The complaints have come as Gray became increasingly involved in the global warming debate. His comments toward adversaries often are biting and adversarial.
In 2005, when Georgia Tech scientist Peter Webster co-authored a paper suggesting global warming had caused a spike in major hurricanes, Gray labeled him and others "medicine men" who were misleading the public.
Webster, in an e-mail from Bangladesh, where is working on a flood prediction project, acknowledged that he complained to Johnson at CSU.
"My only conversation with Dick Johnson, which followed a rather nasty series of jabs from Gray, suggested that Bill should be persuaded to lay off the personal and stay scientific," Webster wrote.
Gray also has been highly critical of a former student, Greg Holland, who is among the most visible U.S. scientists arguing about the dangers posed by global warming.
Gray's comments about Holland include referring to him as a member of a "Gang of Five" that is interested in using scare tactics to increase research funding.
The comment was a reference to the Gang of Four, which terrorized China in the 1960s and '70s while purging the Communist Party of moderates and intellectuals.
"I have registered concern in several quarters, including CSU, on the manner in which he has moved away from scientific debate and into personal attacks on the integrity and motives of myself and my colleagues," Holland said.
Although he ceded lead authorship of the forecasts to Klotzbach in 2006, Gray has remained the headliner in storm prognostication. He annually is among the most popular draws at the National Hurricane Conference.
In recent years, as he has increasingly made sharp public comments about global warming, Gray quickly became one of the most prominent skeptics because of his long background in atmospheric sciences.
His views on the climate — he says Earth is warming naturally and soon will begin cooling — have been applauded by some scientists, particularly meteorologists such as Frank. But they are out of step with mainstream climate science.
The most recent report by an international group of climate scientists, the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, concluded that there was 90 percent certainty that human activity had caused recent warming of the planet.
Yet at U.S. universities, threats to the rights of scientists who hold minority viewpoints are generally frowned upon.
A prominent legal scholar, Stanley Fish of Florida International University, said university public relations offices should not pick and choose where resources go, based upon the content of a professor's work.
"If it can in any way be established that (Gray's) global warming views were the basis of this action, then it is an improper action," Fish said.
In his memo, Gray clearly indicates that he believes his academic freedom is imperiled:
"For the good of all of us in the Department, the College and at CSU, please believe me when I say this is not a direction any of you want to go," he wrote. "Our department and college are strong enough to be able to tolerate a dissenting voice on the global warming question."
Woods, Gray's dean, insisted that dissent on global warming is welcomed at CSU.
"He's not the only faculty member in the world who questions global warming," Woods said. "When Bill talks about some of the data, he can make some very good points."
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