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Profiles In Badassery: Rick Knabb

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Last week as Hurricane Matthew battered the southeastern United States, a Purdue graduate led the way in keeping many citizens safe

Dr. Rick Knabb himself
Dr. Rick Knabb’s Twitter profile picture

For the first time since 2005, a major hurricane made landfall (ish) along the United States coast, as Hurricane Matthew battered the coast from Florida to North Carolina. Technically, Matthew made landfall in South Carolina as a Category 1 Hurricane, but it still did enough damage with its eye wall skimming the coast. Unfortunately, we cannot talk about Hurricane Matthew without discussing the terrible toll on Haiti, where nearly a 1,000 people are feared dead. The impoverish country is still recovering from the 2010 Earthquake, and now most of its southern tip was washed away. Thankfully, Hurricane Matthew has gone out to the Atlantic and is no longer a tropical storm, but the impact it has had will be remembered for years to come.

Hurricanes, typhoons, and tropical cyclones in general have a big impact on our planet. They do not occur often like a typical thunderstorm, but the death and destruction they can bring is unprecedented. That’s why our ability to forecast their path and power is extremely important. Here in the United States, that job falls under the National Hurricane Center, and its current director, Dr. Richard “Rick” Knabb, is a Purdue graduate.

Rick Knabb earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Atmospheric Science from Purdue in 1990. As some of you may know, I and a few of our readers also earned a BS in Atmospheric Science from Purdue, giving me some great motivation to write this article. Dr. Knabb went on to receive his Master’s and PhD in Meteorology from Florida State University, as well as completing a post-doc at the University of Hawaii.

Dr. Knabb served as a Research Meteorologist and Lead Forecaster at the Mauna Kea Weather Center and as an Assistant Product Manager for Weather Risk for Risk Management Solutions, INC. before joining the National Hurricane Center as a Science and Operations Officer. By 2008, Dr. Knabb was promoted to Deputy Director of NOAA’s Central Pacific Hurricane Center in Hawaii. If there’s one thing you can take away from this article, it’s that if you want to specialize in hurricanes, you get to spend a lot of time in the tropics!

Some of you may already recognize Dr. Knabb when he served as The Weather Channel’s on-air Hurricane Expert and Tropical Science Program Manager from 2010-2012. After his time at TWC, Dr. Knabb was named the 11th Director of the National Hurricane Center in June 2012.

Just a few months into his new position, the East Coast of the United States had to brace for a direct hit from Hurricane Sandy. Originally, only the European weather model, ECMWF, predicted Sandy’s path into New York City a week before it made landfall, forcing the United States to pour in more funding for their weather models. Hurricane Sandy was unique in that it made landfall as a “post-tropical” storm. I won’t get into the dynamics, but essentially what this means is that the cyclone no longer exhibits characteristics of the tropical cyclone, often losing its warm core and being fueled by differences in air temperature/humidity rather than latent heat release from a warm ocean surface. However, post-tropical cyclones can still be powerful, featuring fast winds and large storm surges, which is exactly what happened with Sandy.

Storm surges typically result in nearly half of the deaths caused by a hurricane. The strong winds from the cyclone can push ocean water towards the land and can result in a storm surge as high as 20 feet at times. In a place like Florida or Louisiana, with most of its land being close to sea level, storm surges can travel miles inland, drowning many who chose not to evacuate.

Because of this, Dr. Knabb and the National Hurricane Center initiated the Prototype Storm Surge Watch and Warning in 2015. These watches and warning alert those living in low lying areas that their homes are vulnerable to flooding and a storm surge, and simply boarding up your house will not suffice.

The advanced warnings from the NHC may have saved many lives from Florida to the Carolinas this past week. Unfortunately, we cannot say the same thing for Haiti, but I hope and pray that many of us will feel inspired to travel and help their country as they recover from another natural disaster.

Despite this, we should all thank Dr. Rick Knabb and the great work of the National Hurricane Center this past week with their advanced warnings and completing their duties as operational meteorologists. We always like to blame the weatherperson, but sometimes, we just need to say thank you and buy them a beer.