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Predicting the Future: Meteorologists

Predicting the Future: Meteorologists

Everyone talks about the weather, which makes meteorology an excellent introduction to science for most people. Unfortunately, misconceptions about the field often leave both scientists and laymen frustrated.

I’m a scientist.

I have a graduate degree in atmospheric science, and I intend to dedicate my career to acting as a bridge between scientists and the public.  Everyone talks about the weather, which makes meteorology an excellent introduction to science for most people.  Unfortunately, misconceptions about the field often leave both scientists and laymen frustrated.  I’d like to clear up a few of the most common questions I get upon telling someone I am an atmospheric scientist:

Q:  So you’re going to be on TV?

A:  Thankfully, no.  While it’s flattering to be told I have a nice smile and decent voice for television, most of us don’t end up on the local news or The Weather Channel.  The TV weather market has really evolved since its early days in the mid-twentieth century.  The field is now competitive enough that nearly everyone has an actual meteorology degree, which means your local meteorologists are producing their own forecasts based on various data and models.  Many additional national certifications exist for TV meteorologists to prove their scientific smarts, and in many markets, the weathermen and women act as local sources for school administrations, local governments, and transportation departments when preparing for closures and road treatments in the winter.

Q:  Ok then…so you’re involved in more of the “behind the scenes” stuff?

A:  The easiest answer to give to this question is simply “yes,” but that implies that the only purpose of meteorology is to provide local weather forecasts.  That’s similar to saying that the only purpose of biology is to find a cure for cancer.  Other than TV meteorologists, there are National Weather Service employees, government and academic researchers, private sector consultants, as well as many other miscellaneous positions that contribute to the field.  I have colleagues with atmospheric science degrees working as computer programmers, professors, science writers, model developers, radar technicians, and insurance/commodities consultants.  My graduate research was on tornadoes, and I met many interesting people that make their living from storm chasing pictures and videos.

Q:  Tornadoes! Is it like that movie “Twister?”

A:  The 1996 movie, Twister, was based in part on the first iteration of a project I was involved with, VORTEX.  My academic mentors acted as the scientific consultants for the movie.  We do deploy instruments around tornadoes to collect data for research, but things are a little less dramatic (most of the time).  You can follow my account of my time in the field here.

Q:  How does it feel to have the only job where you can be wrong most of the time and still get paid?!

A:  Haha, never heard that one before, Dad!  This is an awkward question for a meteorologist to get.  We’re expected to laugh it off because, hey, funny joke, right?  Most of us have an immediate teaching moment response, and we want to explain about forecast uncertainty, atmospheric dynamics, and a host of other things neither we nor the person we’re talking to wants to chat about in a casual conversation.  So we laugh it off to keep things relaxed, all the while wondering how to best explain the complexity of the science in a quick and easy way.

There isn’t a quick and easy explanation (although some of my colleagues have successfully put it into relatively short terms).  The atmosphere is a fluid, and the part in which the weather occurs is about 10 km deep.  Within those 10 km, we have far too few observations to input into our weather models.  Meanwhile, our models have to take shortcuts in their dynamics calculations due to limitations in computing power.  Small errors in the initial input data “blow up” to large errors as time progresses.  We’re aware of all these things, of course, and forecasters consider all the information available to them when putting together their predictions, but these limitations cannot be fixed.

Dr. Jeff Frame, a meteorology professor at the University of Illinois, commented that “when the weather is boring and meteorologists are right, nobody notices.  You also tend to remember when it rained and you didn’t have [an] umbrella, not when you did.”  Derrick Snyder, a meteorologist studying at Purdue University, added that “social media has allowed folks with no training or education to pass themselves off as meteorologists, [and this] hype and misinformation have hurt [public confidence in the science].”

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