Dr. William Lapenta, 58, who served as the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) tragically died on Monday in North Carolina from rough surf from distant Hurricane Lorenzo. Lapenta, an 11-year veteran with the NOAA, leaves behind a wife, who is also a meteorologist, and two adult children.
At 4:22pm on Monday, September 30, 2019, emergency services were called to the Pelican Way beach access in the Sanderling area of the Town of Duck in North Carolina for a swimmer that was no longer visible from the beach. According to a statement released by town authorities, an ocean rescue supervisor who was off duty but in the area saw what he thought to be a swimmer in distress and alerted emergency services. Lifeguards on patrol responded within minutes upon receiving the call and pulled an unresponsive 58-year-old male from the water. Duck Surf Rescue, Duck Fire and Police, and Dare County EMS initiated CPR and other life-saving measures immediately. Despite these efforts, at 5:00pm Dare County EMS, under the authority of medical control, pronounced the individual dead on scene. While the exact factors that caused the death are unknown, Monday’s surf conditions and a rip current in the area were likely a factor.
“Bill Lapenta was a friend to us all. He was a world-renowned scientist, a leader in weather modeling, an amazing partner and collaborator, an energetic mentor and a devoted husband and father,” National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini said in a statement. “This is a tragic loss to all of us in the NOAA family and to Bill’s atmospheric science colleagues throughout the world. As we mourn the loss of Bill, we pause to reflect on his many contributions to advance the National Weather Service mission while remaining a true friend to all of us who had the good fortune to know him. He will be greatly missed.”
The National Weather Service is part of NOAA and is responsible for issuing advisories for coastal waters due to weather conditions. At the time of Lapenta’s drowning, the National Weather Service had issued Rip Current Warnings . Rough surf being generated by what was then Hurricane Lorenzo was crashing onto shores across the Atlantic Ocean basin. Hours before Lapenta entered the water, the National Weather Service issued a bulletin:
DANGEROUS RIP CURRENTS EXPECTED ACROSS EASTERN NORTH CAROLINA BEACHES... .Distant long period swell from Hurricane Lorenzo will increase today across all Eastern NC beaches. This powerful swell combined with gusty northeast winds, as well as low tide during the middle of the day, will lead to the formation of dangerous rip currents.
At NCEP, Dr. Lapenta directed the team that delivers national and global weather, water, climate and space weather guidance, forecasts, warnings and analyses to help save lives and protect property. As director, Dr. Lapenta oversees the planning, science and technology, and operational responsibilities of NCEP’s nine national centers, which include the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado, and the Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.
Dr. Lapenta has had a long and successful science career. Prior to becoming the NCEP director in January 2014, Dr. Lapenta served as the deputy and acting director of the NCEP Environmental Modeling Center (EMC) starting in October 2008. The EMC is responsible for the development, enhancement, and maintenance of the operational environmental modeling systems that are a foundational component of the national and global weather enterprises. Before arriving at NOAA in 2008, Dr. Lapenta worked at NASA for 20 years at the Marshall Space Flight Center where he served as the Deputy Manager of the Science and Exploration Research Office responsible for all research and development activities related to space science, earth science and space optics. While at NASA Dr. Lapenta also served as the Principal Investigator and Chief Scientist for the NASA Short-term Prediction Research and Transition (SPoRT) Center focused on transitioning NASA earth science assets into the NWS Weather Forecast Offices in the Southern US. During his tenure at NASA, Lapenta served as an adjunct professor at the University of Alabama, Huntsville from 1992 to 2008, where he taught graduate level courses in the atmospheric science department. He has published numerous journal articles on numerical modeling, land/atmosphere interactions, and regional climate. Lapenta has a Ph.D. in meteorology from Pennsylvania State University (1990) and a Bachelor of Science degree in meteorology with a minor in mathematics from the State University of New York at Oneonta (1983).