I find the subject of weather forecasting intriguing. For my father, it was a critical component to his success because knowing current and future weather conditions helped him make determinations regarding daily activities on our family farm. Unfortunately, in my small town of Quapaw, Oklahoma, the sun was out quite a bit which meant my dad kept my brother and me very busy.
To understand their world, I solicited insight from Chief Meteorologist Eric Thomas, who works for WBTV in Charlotte, North Carolina. I consider him the best in our market, so I was thrilled that he was willing to help me with this article. He’s been a weather forecaster for decades, so he’s seen the massive amount of changes that technology has brought about to make weather forecasting timelier and more accurate. I asked Eric a variety of questions and I’ve provided some of his insights. I found his information fascinating and I hope you do as well.
Aristotle is considered the founder of the study of meteorology and he wrote a paper regarding the topic in 350 B.C. Around the same time, Plato (a competitor of Aristotle’s), had an amazing student named Theophrastus who was also interested in finding ways to predict the weather. When Plato died, Theophrastus went to the academy where Aristotle taught and became a master of this science through working with him. For nearly two thousand years, both their insights were still being used by people assigned to predict weather patterns around the world.
The field of meteorology has had a long history of inventions including the rain gauge in 1441 A.D., the wind gauge in 1450, and the first mercury thermometer in 1643. In 1714, Gabriel Fahrenheit created a reliable scale for measuring temperature using a mercury thermometer. Isn’t it amazing that over 300 years later we still hear his last name (Fahrenheit), daily when discussing temperatures? In 1960, NASA launched the first successful weather satellite called the TIROS-1, marking the beginning of an age where insightful weather data became available globally. Fortunately for NASA, a lot of other countries paid them for access (subscribers), to their satellite’s information.
One area that prevents a lot of young people from pursuing a degree in meteorology is that it’s math intensive. Do you remember taking classes like Algebra, Geometry, Physics, and Trigonometry? Meteorologists must use components of these in various aspects of their jobs. Classes at these levels of mathematics aren’t ones where a college student can just show up and wing it, they take a tremendous amount of study and this isn’t for everyone. For individuals who have what it takes, meteorology is a great career path from a financial perspective, as average salaries in markets the size of Charlotte (ranked 17th in the country), are around $80,000 a year.
I’d say that many people don’t realize there are other career paths for people who work in the field of meteorology beyond working for a television station but there are, such as being a weather analyst for the National Weather Service, the military, and the agricultural industry. There are also jobs with research organizations such as those studying climate change.
People who want a career in weather broadcasting must seek an additional level of education that addresses presentation skills; it’s generally the number one skill chief meteorologists look for in hiring. This includes non-verbal and verbal communications (i.e. hand movements, facial expressions, where to stand, voice clarity, voice fluctuation, etc.), all the way down to what clothes to wear. Wearing any type of green clothing doesn’t mix well with the green screen they use to project their broadcasts and certain patterns on a tie can appear to be moving, which of course would distract viewers.
Eric said the most critical technology they use is their doppler radar which has been a game-changer in the world of weather forecasting. It’s a type of radar used to locate precipitation, calculate its motion, and estimate its type such as hail, rain, sleet, and snow. What I find amazing is that The Doppler Effect, named after Austrian physicist Christian Doppler, was proposed in 1842, but its usage in meteorology didn’t really kick in until over 170 years later when technology caught up to his theory; certainly not the first time this has happened.
Doppler radar can even detect the amount of debris that is being sucked up by tornados. This gives a meteorologist even more confidence issuing tornado warnings as they look for rotational patterns in the debris that is reaching the atmosphere. This level of insight was never available before. Not all television stations use this expensive piece of equipment but if you’re driving by a local television station and see what appears to be a large white ball outside their building, then that’s probably their doppler radar.
One of the things that I was looking forward to finding out about is if Eric’s station uses a scorecard to check the accuracy of their forecasts compared to their competition. He said they subscribe to a third party called WeatheRate; a company which evaluates the effectiveness of weather forecasting at various news stations across the country.
I was able to get insight from one of the key players at WeatheRate, Bruce Fixman, and what they do is extraordinary as they can verify the accuracy of the predictions made at various news networks regarding cloud coverage, the amount of rainfall, when the rain arrives, temperatures, wind speed, precipitation such as ice, rain or snow, the arrival time and density of fog, the severity of thunderstorms, etc. Pretty amazing! They also have a consumer page at http://www.weatherate.com/stations.php. You can see if your favorite station is a subscriber and it’s a great place to go for a one page, reader friendly format to the weather conditions in your area.
When I worked in advertising and marketing, I had to do a lot of entertaining and it wasn’t my thing. I enjoy interacting with a small group of people who I know, but when it comes to dealing with larger groups of people I don’t know, I become uncomfortable and find it emotionally draining. Socializing with large groups is something a meteorologist must be comfortable with because it’s a part of their job. Eric’s team does a tremendous amount of community outreach especially working with charities. They attend many social events. They give presentations at schools and for various organizations. If someone isn’t effective at interacting with the community, it will be very difficult becoming successful at their job.
One of the challenging things about working in their business is that their social lives are negatively impacted. Those who work the early shift and cover the morning and noon broadcasts, are up in the middle of the night getting ready for work. They miss many outings with their friends and family because they go to bed so early. Those who work the second shift, which includes the 5:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. broadcasts, aren’t home for dinner. They generally arrive at work around 3 p.m. and don’t leave until around 1 a.m. Television news is sometimes referred to as an ‘anti-family’ business. Eric said that the old adage is: “If you want to succeed in local television, you must be on the air when everyone else is home, otherwise what’s the point?” This sums it up nicely.
Since news anchors and weather forecasters are local celebrities, they get approached sometimes by people in their community. I asked Eric if he had any funny experiences and he said plenty, so he gave me a couple to share.
One time he was at a restaurant when a woman who had a rambunctious four-year-old, saw him. I guess because people feel like they know Eric since he’s in our living rooms at least five days a week, so she thought it would be okay to send her child over to play with him. The young boy didn’t know who Eric was, but he had no problem climbing up and down him and talking his ear off. What’s also funny is that at one point, while Eric had this young boy crawling all over him, he looked over and saw the boy’s mom enjoying a nice, quiet, meal. He took one for the WBTV team. 😊
The other funny story he mentioned, occurred when he was taking his 90-year-old aunt, who was visiting from out of town, to a Home Depot store. He and his aunt were travelling in Eric’s yellow, Pontiac Solstice roadster (I love this car), with the top down. Most 90-year-olds don’t like getting their hair messed up so his aunt must be a really cool. Anyhow, he pulled up to the curb and there was a commercial bus waiting for people to come out of the store. He began helping his aunt get out of the car when a man yelled out: “Hey, aren’t you the guy on TV?” Next, the bus driver ran off the bus screaming and jumping around all thrilled to see him. His aunt was extremely impressed by her nephew’s celebrity status.
Eric was used to getting approached by fans, but never like this so he was feeling pretty good about his popularity. Then his bubble burst when he found out that it was a case of mistaken identity. The very popular television show, House, was running in prime time and Eric looks a bit like Hugh Laurie, the star of the show. So, the cause for all the excitement was that they thought they were meeting a famous Hollywood celebrity. An embarrassing moment for Eric, but as we know, embarrassing moments like these often turn into funny stories later. I’ve been the star of a few of these.
I hope this article changes the way you look at those who bring us the weather. They are an amazingly bright group of people who have a tremendous impact in the communities they serve well beyond their forecasts. If you’re out and about with your children in Charlotte, and you see “Uncle,” Eric, feel free to have him baby sit for awhile so you can enjoy some quiet time. 😊