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The recent (now withdrawn) proposed Texas legislation to define a meteorologist got me all riled up again on a subject I feel pretty strongly on- what exactly defines this field I have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?



DZ Tornado said...

You may find my October 7, 2004 comments interesting. I've been thinking about learning and forecasting is a great subject for that! Just how do we learn how to forecast?

Pecos Blake said...


Your comments are very refreshing and certainly rings true with one or two other individuals I know (within the NWS) whom followed a very similar path. Your words are encouraging; and have been forwarded to a friend struggling within the web of calc II, chemistry, and physics -- yet refuses to throw in the towel based on internal drive. Your post will more than likely boost his spirits. Thank you for sharing.. and welcome to the wondrous world of blogging.


Darren said...

Great post and encouraging to someone interested in learning the hand forecasting necessary for storm chasing (mid-life).

I've started a collaborative wiki site for other's like myself. If you'd care to pass along some of the tutelage that you received, I hope you'll join us!

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