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Fred Sanders, pioneer storm forecaster, dies

Frederick Sanders, professor emeritus of meteorology and mentor and friend to an entire generation of weather researchers, died on Oct. 6 after a long illness. He was 83 and had been a longtime resident of Marblehead.

Sanders was pre-eminent in the field of synoptic meteorology, which seeks to understand weather systems such as fronts and cyclones by careful analysis and interpretation of weather observations. He made important contributions to the analysis, understanding, and prediction of fronts, low pressure systems, hurricanes, squall lines, and flood-producing storms, and he coined the term "bomb" to describe explosively intensifying winter storms.

Sanders helped develop one of the first successful computer models for forecasting hurricane tracks, as well as new techniques for forecasting rain and snow amounts. He pioneered methods for evaluating the skill of both human and computer weather forecasts, stressing the need for quantifying the uncertainty of the forecasts; this work also led to improvements in numerical weather prediction models.

Together with his colleague Richard Reed, he elevated the field of synoptic meteorology to the status of a respected science, to the benefit of the field and to generations of students. He was the recipient of many awards and was a fellow of the American Meteorological Society as well as the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2004, the American Meteorological Society held a scientific colloquium in his honor.

Born in Detroit on May 17, 1923, Sanders spent much of his childhood in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. After attending Amherst College, where he studied mathematics, economics and music, Sanders enlisted in 1941 in the Army Air Corps, which was recruiting math and physics students to be trained as weather forecasters. He spent 15 months at MIT studying math, physics and meteorology and graduated as a second lieutenant shortly after D-Day in Normandy. He was assigned to Greenland, where he made weather predictions to assist flight crews.

After World War II ended, Sanders worked briefly as an air inspector at Headquarters Eight Weather Group at Grenier Air Force Base in New Hampshire. In 1946, he decided to become a professional weather forecaster rather than join his father's candy manufacturing business. He spent two years as a transatlantic aviation forecaster for the U.S. Weather Bureau at La Guardia Field then returned to MIT, where he earned an Sc.D. degree in 1954. He then joined the faculty of MIT's Department of Meteorology, where he remained until his retirement in 1984.

Sanders preferred to spend most of his professional time preparing lectures and interacting with students. He influenced his field not only through his own research but also through nurturing the talents of his students. Sanders took entire classes for outings on his sailing yacht Stillwater, bringing joy as well as knowledge to the study of weather.

Sanders was a passionate sailor, and participated in many ocean races, including the Newport-Bermuda and Marblehead-Halifax races. He also loved to cruise the coast of Maine and the Canadian Maritimes with his family and friends. An accomplished tenor, he sang with the MIT Choral Society and more recently with a choral group in Marblehead.

"I don't think we will ever see his equal--not just for his scientific insight, but his outgoing nature, his helpfulness, his sometimes acerbic wit, and without fail remaining the consummate gentleman at all times," said his friend and colleague, Ed Zipser.

Sanders is survived by his wife, Nancy (Brown) Sanders; two sons, John Sanders and Duncan Sanders-Fleming; a daughter, Christopher Sanders; and several grandchildren.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 1, 2006 (download PDF).

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