Saturday, November 23, 2013

Top 8 Things That I Hear When I Say That I Am a Meteorologist

I often write on hefty subjects, but today I felt like writing something fairly light. I have been a Research Meteorologist for about 20 years. I received my BS, MS, and PhD in physical meteorology from Florida State University. In that time, I have developed a catalogue of key questions or responses that come when I mention what I do. This top 8 spans my career at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, University of Georgia, and as AMS President.

1. "Oh, so you are a meteorologist, what channel are you on?"- I have been interested in meteorology since 6th grade, but I always more interested in the "how and why of weather" rather than the day-to-day aspects of weather and climate.  For this reason, I have spent my career on the research and development (R&D) side of our field (NASA and University of Georgia).   I appear often on national media as a weather or climate expert and did turn down an offer in a top 4 TV market several years ago. As with any field, there is a wide range of meteorologists within our field. Our valued TV colleagues are the window to the public but only a small part of the meteorology and atmospheric sciences community. For this reason, it is difficult to capture what meteorologists think on any particular topic since the community is not monolithic and is quite broad.

2. "Oh, you were a meteorologist for NASA, so did you forecast for space shuttle launches or know any astronauts?"- NASA also studies "this planet" too.  I worked on missions and science related to Earth Sciences (TRMM and GPM). Air Force Weather and National Weather Service support launch activities for NASA. And by the way, NASA is very active and much broader than the shuttle program though I still get questions about whether NASA went away after the shuttle program ended. Lesson: We need broader coverage of the full portfolio of NASA activities. And yes, I do know several astronauts, but I haven't been to space. And no, I didn't work at Kennedy Space Center. There are several NASA centers around the nation, and each has a different focus. :)

3. "So you are a meteorologist, what is the weather tomorrow?"-On certain days, I may not actually know the answer to this question as I don't really follow the weather as closely as some may think on a day to day basis. I generally do know the answer to that question but it is certainly not a given depending on what is going on in my day. My 6 year old son is a better and more consistent source :).

4. "I know it's December but will my daughter's wedding next September have rain?"-Umm, ma'am not sure. Many people don't realize that weather (your mood) and climate (your personality) are different. We could certainly provide this mother with some climatological statistics for the wedding date, but a specific forecast of the atmospheric state that many months out is not possible (with accuracy). Weather models predict the atmospheric fluid state 1-10 or so days out. Many confuse weather and climate models. Both are based on similar equations, but a climate model is not trying to predict the state of the atmosphere on a particular day in 2080. Therefore, the question "how can we trust climate models when a weather model breaks down after 10 or so days?" is an apples vs oranges question.

5. "It must be nice to work in a field that is wrong half the time yet still get paid"-This really annoys me because it is just wrong. Yes, some forecasts are misses, but overwhelmingly, more are right than wrong. It's human nature to remember the wrong ones and not the correct ones. We remember the missed field goal in the Super Bowl, but we forget the same kicker was 100% accurate during the regular season. He is still a good kicker. Also, many in the public don't realize that certain forecasts are actually correct even if they think they are wrong. For example, many do not get the concept of "30% chance of rain" and will assume the forecast is wrong if it rains on their cookout (see

6. "Is the groundhog accurate?"- People really ask this. It is a fun, traditional event and I appreciate that aspect of it. BUT, some people actually take it quite seriously. It also gets quite a bit of media coverage too (even as some really cool life saving advances in meteorology are overlooked, see Mike Smith's Oped in the Washington Post,

7. "Do you believe in climate change?"-Because I appreciate and understand the peer reviewed science and other issues swirling around the topic, I simply note that "unicorns" and "tooth-fairy" are things people believe in. I try to explain what the science says, where the uncertainties are, and what the other agendas can be on all sides. I hate the confrontational and "stake out sides" part of this discussion so try to avoid that aspect and getting sucked into the "negativity."

8. "Euro or GFS?"-This question is coming more in recent times after the big success of the Euro with Sandy (even though Louis Uccellini noted that in 2012 there are cases where GFS outperformed the Euro). Yes, statistical analysis gives the Euro an edge over GFS in some quantitative comparisons. However, many in the public seem to think that GFS is terrible and that is not the case. In fact, in a recent dinner that I had with the head of the ECMWF, Alan Thorpe (the Euro), he and colleagues literally chuckles with how this GFS vs Euro thing has been framed in our country. He noted  GFS beats Euro in many situations. The public also doesn't really understand that the two are not in competition.  Good meteorologists carefully consider them both (and other sources too).  "The Euro" and its successes are also quite reliant on U.S. and other satellite data that is being assimilated.

As an honorable mention, I could have mentioned questions about "Did climate change cause Haiyan or Sandy, but I recently wrote about that here:

I am sure you resonate with some of these and likely have your own "8" too :).....


  1. Regarding the groundhog, one reason to think it is somehow scientific is its success rate of about 2/3. But actually that's about what you would expect by chance.

    How can that be? The two alternatives, six more weeks of winter vs. spring is just around the corner, are not equally likely. If you look at history, you will see that six more weeks (a rather vague notion but we can live with it) happens about 80% of the time, and the groundhog predicts that alternative about 80% of the time.

    The possible outcomes are thus 80% of 80% success on "six more weeks" + 20% of 20% success on "around the corner." Total is 68% right by chance.

  2. I got #3 all. the. time. when I was stationed at Fort Polk 1995-1998. Soldiers who knew me would see me in the commissary, at Taco Bell, etc. and would ask me for fishing, hunting, and golf forecasts.

    As for #4, in summer 1994, I had who must have been Veruca Salt's father calling the Campus Weather Service desk in the month of May asking for weather for his daughter's July wedding in Central Park. He proceeded to tell me how expensive and many years in advance they had to book the if I would take that into consideration and keep the rain from falling. I explained to him that there was no way we could give a "rain vs. no rain" forecast this early. He was pretty upset.