Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Is technology chasing's savior or ruination?

Since I am just 3 months from officially gaining OF status (July 13 is when I hit the dreaded five-o), I can feel qualified in making a few observations regarding the evolution of chasing over the 15 year period that I have been involved in this endeavor. Of course I cannot even come close to the experience of chase pioneers such as Gene Moore, Al Moller, Chuck Doswell and Dave Hoadley (among others), but I can say that in 1989 chasing was a vastly different animal than it is today- and it will continue to evolve at a rapid pace. Why this nearly exponential change? Of course, the answer is technology (I include the popular media and its evolution in that umbrella).

When I first started chasing, getting data was an interesting challenge, to say the least. The main source was the local NWS office, and also fax charts that we got with a portable fax machine that we brought along. So we dialed up a few NGM, upper air and surface maps, along with the SPC outlooks. Then after we got into the target area we visited the local NWS office (if they would let us in, not all would) and asked politely if we could see the latest surface map. After analyzing that, we took off for wherever, and from that point it was completely visual, except for reports we might hear on local radio or the NOAA WX radio. Since we were brand new at the chasing game, we knew nothing about storm structure, so if we stumbled onto a good storm, it was often complete luck.

After a couple of years of bumbling across the Plains in the above fashion, I got my first laptop and cell phone. This changed things a lot- since we had access to more data in the motel room, and could sometimes get an update from a friend while on the road. We still did go to NWS offices, though, but it was not as crucial as before.

At the same time all of these changes were going on, chasing as a hobby in general was undergoing quite a revolution- mainly in tandem with the explosion of cable TV and 24 hour news/infotainment, which over-publicizes and glamorizes the hobby, and of course the premiere of the movie Twister in 1996. Those two things really changed the public perception of chasing, and led to the explosion in the number of people going out on their own- from folks that chase every year for several weeks, to the local "yahoos" who crowd the roads whenever there is a tornado warning.

Now of course, the technological aspect of the hobby has really taken off. Chasers can get high-speed internet in their vehicles, along with live radar and GPS. This capability will only get more widespread in the very near future- I just read about Wi-Max, which is like Wi-Fi, but can stretch over miles, not feet. Within the next few years, all chasers will have the capability to have every shred of information they need beamed directly into their vehicle no matter where they are, even in the most remote locations.

So is all of this evolution a good or bad thing? Well, like most things in life, there is no simple answer to that question. I have generally been an embracer of the latest technology, but maybe not to the extent that some are (my vehicle will never look like the Carson Eadsmobile). This year I considered getting the Baron XM WXWorx radar that is all the rage, but financial considerations prevented me from doing that yet. I will be chasing with a GSM cell phone connected to my laptop, which provides internet access in many parts of chase alley.
Personally, as far as chase "success" goes, there is no doubt that the new gadgets and gizmos have helped me see more and better storms than in in the old days. But is the overall experience diminished? Well, yes and no. I do lament, like many others, the loss of the experience of viewing a storm by yourself- quite often nowadays there is not even a place to pull off to the side of the road, due to the number of chasers on a particular storm. I will never forget one time in the Texas panhandle when we were approaching a supercell from the east, driving through the canyons of the Caprock- when we emerged up onto the plain we were greeted by a massive "chaser convergence" of at least 30 vehicles- we barely could find a small space to set up our cameras.
And this will only get worse- with all the new technology, even inexperienced chasers with no knowledge of meteorology or storm structure will be able to get the latest SPC tornado probabilities, and when they get to the area, then they will have all the tornado warnings and radar images displayed right in their car. Of course this does not guarantee success, as I still see many chasers out of their cars pointing at an outflow boundary like it is about to produce an F5. So experienced and knowledgeable chasers who can interpret the data properly and visually judge storm structure and morphology will still have the edge. Overall, though, there will continue to be more and more people out every year- lured by the siren song of the latest and greatest chase toys. So through simple dumb luck and sheer force of numbers the good storms will continue to have more and more people on them.

On the positive side, the new technology has really made the chase process a lot easier and sometimes less stressful- and at this point, for me at least, there is no turning back, as I personally cannot do anything about the problems I outlined above. So I will embrace the new chasing realities and take what comes- the good, the bad and the ugly. The storms themselves are still the most awesome and powerful force in nature- and I never get tired of viewing them. That is the bottom line, and it is why I will always chase.


Wednesday, April 20, 2005

What is a meteorologist?

The recent (now withdrawn) proposed Texas legislation to define a meteorologist got me all riled up again on a subject I feel pretty strongly on- what exactly defines this field I have devoted my life to? The easy answer that a lot of people subscribe to is: BS or higher degree in meteorology= meteorologist. However, it is not nearly so simple, and I am a prime example of that, for you see, despite having the title meteorologist, and having been gainfully employed as a forecaster in that field for almost 30 years, I do not meet the above requirement.

My personal background is necessary to frame where I am coming from:
I have always been a storm nut (hence the title of this blog). I am not sure what the genesis of this was, but I think it is probably related to my childhood being mostly spent in the relative weather dearth of Southern California, where the forecast 80% of the year is the same; night and morning low clouds with hazy afternoon sunshine. However, every summer I was shipped off to see my grandmother in Corning, IA in the SW part of that state- and got to witness the majesty of the Plains thunderstorm firsthand.
So from an early age I did a lot of the things young weather geeks do- I had my homemade rain gauge, kept meticulous weather records etc. I was branded as strange in Corning early on because of my habit of climbing onto the roof of my grandmother's house to observe the clouds. Back in California I spent hours on the phone with my neighbor Walter Milton, another weather geek, talking about what our TV idol, Dr. George Fishbeck, had to say on the local news. Dr George was quite an influence on me- he was not actually a real meteorologist, I believe his degree was in geography or some such. His unbridled enthusiasm for weather, and his penchant for showing things like 500mb charts on the air had me hooked from the start.
In any event, I always knew I wanted to be a meteorologist when I grew up. However, after investigating what this would entail, I was not pleased about all the advanced math and physics required in getting a degree. For you see, from early on I was the kind of student that would try and avoid, at all costs, any subject that I found to be boring- and math and physics fit that category to a tee. Another obstacle was that since I would invariably get bad grades in subjects I did not like (never an F or rarely a D, but many Cs). So my GPA was mediocre at best coming out of high school. Therefore I spent the first two years of school at Santa Monica junior college. Then my grandmother offered to pay my tuition at Iowa State- which had a meteorology program. So back to Iowa I went, but still reluctant to take those darn math and physics classes. I approached the dilemma slowly, first getting all the lesser related classes out of the way- but decision time was fast approaching. But then the Fickle Finger of Fate intervened. From the start of my tenure at ISU, I could see that there was very little emphasis on forecasting (which is what I wanted to do). There was one very math oriented synoptics class, and a half-hearted daily map discussion. However, I was very lucky that Ed Berry, now at NWS DDC, was a grad student at the time, and he and I would be practically the only people in the map room most of the time. I found that I was picking up the rudiments of reading the charts, with Ed's tutelage, very quickly. Before long I was leading the map discussions- and even providing forecasts to some of the professors (who were very research oriented).
At the same two part time jobs opened up in the area- and because of my now almost legendary enthusiasm for forecasting, I landed both at the same time. One was Sunday night at Freese-Notis weather in Des Moines, where I answered the phone and did a few odd forecasts. The other was assistant to Vince Miller at WOI-TV. Both jobs gave me an opportunity to soak up more forecasting knowledge. After a year or so, I was facing the math dilemma square in the face- but was saved by being offered a full-time position at Freese Notis. My thinking was, maybe I could slowly get my degree at ISU while working. However, that never came about, as I spent about 3 years at F-N, then applied to TWC when it launched in 1982, and got that job. I have been working at TWC as a forecaster for 23 years now, the bulk of that time as Senior Forecaster.

OK, what is the upshot of all this? In my personal case, I never took one class in Dynamics, Synoptic, Thermo- and got no college degree of any kind, Despite this handicap I have been gainfully employed as a weather forecaster for coming up on 30 years, and If I may toot my own horn a bit, my employers have been eminently satisfied with my performance as such.

This gets to the heart of the whole controversy- what is required to be a good weather forecaster? The conventional wisdom, ascribed to by the AMS, is that the more math, physics and advanced met classes, the better. However, my experience seems to fly in the face of that.
Here is my admittedly biased take. The proof is in the RESULTS, not the path taken to get there. If someone like myself, with no degree- maybe someone that could not quite pass that last partial differential equations course, or an ex-military type, or whatever- is able to produce good forecast RESULTS, then the other stuff is all secondary. The passion and dedication to the field is a much more important requirement than any degree. Even among the degreed meteorologists, I see this time in and time out- the really good ones are the ones that have that fire in their belly- that is what counts above all else.
After all, how much of that high-level calculus and advanced physics is really applied in day-to-day forecasting? Very little if any. I have heard that blather about "you need to understand the underlying concepts", but I think that I do understand the concepts- I just never had to express that understanding with a calculus equation. Like it or not, forecasting is still at least as much art as science- mainly because the atmosphere is so chaotic and basically unpredictable, all of the equations in the world cannot come close to approximating what actually goes on. I cannot remember how many times over the years I have read a very long-winded NWS forecast discussion filled with a lot of the latest met jargon- q vectors, CSI, potential vorticity etc- and the forecast ends up being dead wrong anyway. I am not saying that a forecaster that uses these methods is doing it wrong per se- just that his/her method is not necessarily going to always work better than a simpler approach.

Now let me get one thing straight here- I am NOT advising any younger people reading this that a degree is not important- in the world we live in now, it is an absolute requirement. What happened with me is very atypical, and is not the path that would probably lead to employment any longer- even back then it was a fluke. I DO advise, however, along with geting that degree, you live and breathe forecasting and try and learn as much as you can on your own, and eventually what you learn by being passionate and dedicated will serve you every bit as much as that degree will.

A pie-in-the-sky theory that might help solve this dilemma is that all meteorologists are not created equal- so why is there only one path to a met degree? it is ludicrous, in my view, to make a future professor or modeler take the exact same courses as someone that simply wants to forecast. In ny perfect world, schools would have something like a BS in Forecasting Science. This degree would require just the basic calc and physics, but have a heavy emphasis on synoptic and tons of hands on forecasting. This would allow many potentially great forecasters to get their degrees, where otherwise the heavier math courses might force them into other professions. (I personally know of at least 2 people that this happened to).
I know that none of this is likely to ever come about, as the AMS and NWS seem to be going in the opposite direction. But I can dream (and blog) can't I?


Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Roger Hill strikes again!

Roger Hill, arguably the most succesful storm chaser of the past 5 years, bagged at least two tornadoes north of Sterling, CO earlier this afternoon- it is not surprising that he and Mike Umscheid have been the golden ones so far this early season (Mike and Fritz Kruse of NWS Dodge City got 5 or so in west central Kansas on April 10th).
Looks like Nebraska will be the place to be the next two days as well (western tomorrow, eastern Thursday)- then maybe some interesting storms here in Atlanta on Friday.

After that a strong low will form over the eastern U.S. for Saturday- this is significant in that all of the models and ensembles show a strong system coming out of the Pacific into the Plains next Monday- but with the close proximity in time to the previous front, it is questionable if the Guf moisture can recover in time for a really significant tornado event. Too bad, since my days off are Sunday Monday and Tuesday- so I could drive out to TX for a Monday event. The silver lining for me is that it looks like there could be some good storms closer to home Tuesday in the Tennessee Valley- we shall see. My main chase vacation does not begin until May 23- so I will take all the early week events before then I can get.