What makes a “Weather Guy”?

An interview with Jim Kline of the National Weather Service
originally published in the Employment Times, May 19, 2003

By Kim Davis © 2003

All of us who are involved with any aspect of the travel industry are deeply affected by the weather.  As a marine biology student-come-sailor, a significant part of my education involved the weather, both on the job and in the classroom.  Our lives often depend on our being prepared for the violent forces of nature, and without the help of the world’s professional meteorologists, our chances of surviving the terrible storms we encounter would not be nearly as good.

This week, Jim Kline, of the National Weather Service, took the time to answer some questions for us about his fascinating job as a professional meteorologist.

Describe your job for us. What is a typical day like?

I am what is termed a “Data Acquisition Program Manager” that’s DAPM for short. I work for the United States Department of Commerce, under NOAA, which is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and then under that agency is the National Weather Service. Our “Super Offices” are scattered around the country in every state of the Union.

We have downsized to what is known as “Super Offices” with our newest tool in the science of Meteorology, the NEXRAD Radar. It’s Doppler effect can not only detect clouds, precipitation, rain, sleet, hail, snow and wind, it can alert us to the presence of severe weather. Each state has at least two of these offices.

Staffing at the offices average around 25 people; around 9 to 12 Forecasters, 4 to 6 Hydro – Meteorological Technicians (HMT), the Administrative Staff and the electronic support team.  My job is to serve as a Manager for the HMT staff. We are the technicians that actually get to go out into the wild atmospheric elements to collect weather information as well as a lot of other data collection functions indoors.

[Interpretation for job seekers:  You are not limited to any one specific geographic region with this job.  Every state has two “Super Offices” with a staff of plus or minus 25 people.

Would I be correct in assuming that there are geographic regions where the Weather Service teams have a tougher job than in other regions?  I’m thinking specifically about areas like where I live that are prone to hurricanes, fierce thunderstorms, hail and tornadoes.]

There are some major geographical regions that make forecast quite the challenge indeed. The National Weather Service has several different regions to work in  [for more detailed info visit http://www.nws.noaa.gov/organization.html]:

  • Eastern Region, which as it states mostly the Eastern states and ice storms and Hurricanes are a main issue there.
  • Southern Region, which includes the south border states and again not so much ice storms but Hurricanes.
  • Central Region, of which I am a part, we get a taste of everything from blizzards to floods to Tornadoes. The main issue is Tornadoes and Severe Thunderstorms.
  • Western Region, which is made of roughly the western third of the U.S. Besides some major blizzards in the mountains not much really is a treat. Occasionally some severe thunderstorms and a few tornadoes but they mainly deal with mountain areas for concern as with heavy snowfall and especially Flash Floods, which can claim a lot of lives very rapidly as they wedge and carve their way through the mountain valleys.
  • Alaska Region and
  • Pacific Region.

On a typical day, I would make sure all the programs that I am in charge of (around 5) are taken care of.  We collect data through a very unique computer system that ties all the weather offices in the country together.  Our orbiting (Geo-stationary) satellites continually transmit up to the minute cloud formations throughout the American Hemisphere.

I manage a network of 105 volunteer weather observers.  Through their dedication we have been able to maintain a constant climate record that dates back to the Jefferson Presidency.  Thomas Jefferson was very interested in weather and kept records for over 40 years.  He started the first COOP observer program way back then.  He had his network of scientists and volunteers record daily weather events.  So, today we are proud to keep this tradition of volunteerism alive through our observers. Over 12,000 observers span the United States keeping records of our weather history.

Another program I manage is the Upper Air Program, where twice a day – once at 5am and again at 5pm – we launch a weather instrument high into the Stratosphere.  From the surface it begins to transmit radio signals that convert back to; Temperature, Dew Point, Humidity, Atmospheric pressure, Wind Direction and Speed.  It does this from the surface to an elevation of over 20 miles high, that’s over 100,000 feet!  We fight the elements with a Hydrogen filled balloon launched into the heavens. This is done not only here in Chanhassen, Minnesota but at over 100 offices across the United States and as a matter of fact, the entire world is launching balloons at this same time, 12 AM and 12 PM Greenwich.

Another most important program is the Severe Weather Warnings.  We monitor the Doppler Radar, which scans for 250 nautical miles in all directions.  Each Forecast Office has one.  This unique computerized radar can detect particles within water vapor and clouds.  When severe weather approaches a Warning Team is setup and we go into action, keeping track of every storm.  Then we alert the public with warnings through our computerized circuits directly to the TV and emergency agencies.  Because of Doppler Radars we are given more lead time in issuing the warnings, some still evade us but our new technology has been proving itself worth every cent!

[I definitely noticed that the accuracy of the weather predictions and tracking had improved enormously over the 13 years that I was out of the U.S. 1985 – 1998 When did Doppler Radar come into widespread use?]

Doppler radar began its first run test season in 1988, but was not in full operation until 1990 and by 1994 most Weather Forecast Office in the U.S. had them installed.

Who uses the data we collect/analyze?

Our services are free for everyone as employees of the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Weather Service, and your taxes allow you full access to any information we collect. The primary user is the news media.  The TV stations collect our information, satellite pictures and radar scans for relay to the general public every day.  We are the “Source” for EVERYTHING they get and use on the air.  We issue forecasts around eight times a day and through our Upper Air Radio Transmitters, we provide a “Core Sample” of the atmosphere every 12 hours.  Thousands of computer graphics and text messages are sent 24 hours a day non-stop throughout the year.

Our coworkers along the coast provide the Marine weather forecast and sea information needed desperately by both the public and mariners alike.  [Please tell me they got rid of the computerized voice!  It used to put me to sleep before we came to the part of the weather report that concerned me!]  Then far off in the mist of the quiet oceans our sensors both floating on the water, aboard ships and watching from space, we can detect the spawning of future Hurricanes when they are merely tropical depression adrift along the equator. The “Big Eye in the Sky” doesn’t lie when its piercing lens captures these gigantic storms as they whip deep into the heart of the Earth’s atmosphere and move inland in search of prey. That is when our radars show their true worth, piercing the hearts of these terrible dragons.

The United States have experienced such terrible hurricanes over the past 5 – 10 years, and I have noticed that the warnings are earlier than ever for coastal residents.  What can the radar actually detect inside a hurricane?  Wind speed? Tornadoes?

Can our radars detect Hurricanes’ wind speed?  YES! But when a hurricane comes into view it’s truly a frightening sight to see on radar as it covers the ENTIRE scope, which can display out to a radius of 250 nautical miles!  The tight banded spirals of the circulating hurricane can be easily seen and especially the “Eye”.  It is a truly awesome sight to see peering at you from the radar screen.  Also, due to it’s technology our radars CAN detect wind speed as it can track microscopic particles in the air and record their position in a “timed” program thus converting that data into speed.

Yes, our radar can detect tornadoes and has a special feature built into it to sound an alarm when it detects a fast circulation within a storm.  Wind speeds in excess of 55 mph are an early indication of a potentially dangerous storm.  As the winds increase in a very close and tight circulation a “Vortex” is developed and from that a Tornado can spawn.  A bright red triangle appears on our radar to indicate the exact position that a “Radar Indicated” tornado could possibly exist.  That’s enough for a warning to be issued, and then storm spotters take it from there to re-confirm the tornado.

Tell us a bit about Storm chasing.

Deep within the hearts of many fearless souls runs the passion of facing these violent storms first hand.  To brave the wind, hail and lightning to capture these storms on film and machines.  These fearless souls are called “Storm Chasers.”  This is not a paid position.  They do it for the pleasure and excitement of it. [I’m sure there are some who wish “storm chasing” were a paid position.]  Our Office of Chanhassen, Minnesota protects 55 counties and the major cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  That equates to millions of people in all walks of life, enjoying each day of the year.  But, in Minnesota the weather can change quickly as dark clouds move rapidly in and there is a sense of danger a brewing.  We send out messages early in the day advising local Storm Chasers of the potential for severe weather.  We also train special “Severe Weather Spotters,” another volunteer position, to assist us.  These people are given about 4 hours of precise instruction on how to identify severe storms and are our “Eyes” on the ground during these dangerous weather events.  With their hand-held radios they call in reports of damage and Tornado forming clouds in time for us here at the Weather Service to take action and issue the warnings.

These brave souls are also wise.  Unlike the movie “Twister”, these people really do not get that close to the Tornadoes, because they respect the “Awesome and Mighty” powers of nature upon this Earth.  They mind their distance and report to us.  Occasionally some are caught off guard and find themselves right in the middle of the action and terror.  I am sure you’ve seen their film clips on the Weather Channel.  We can only, as humans, observe and report the weather, we are far from controlling it.  Yes, my hat goes off to our Storm Chasers and Sever Weather Spotters!

Anyone 16 years or older can become a spotter for the National Weather Service.  Just go unto their web pages in your area and seek information about it. Classes begin around February and March Nation-wide, (http://www.nws.noaa.gov) or call your local weather office.

What sort of Education is required to work for the National Weather Service?

A four-year college degree in Meteorology is required, with at least 26 semester hours in Meteorology.  There are schools all over the nation that offer degrees.  Once you have graduated you can seek employment with:

  • The National Weather Service, or
  • In private industry such as:
    • TV stations,
    • Airlines,
    • Private Consulting Firms, these are private Meteorologists who provide specific weather information and forecasts for such industries as clothing companies.  Knowing when to put out a line of winter coats in time for very cold weather, sale items that relate to our weather.  Photographic companies that need perfect weather conditions for “shooting” pictorial ads, some want crystal blue skies others want storms, knowing when exactly this is going to happen saves them thousands of dollars.  Or
    • NOAAhas many branches that you can use your degree:
      • Ocean research ships, [When I studied Marine Biology at University I got to visit the NOAA offices south of Miami.  These guys study all sorts of things from the wind, to the ocean current, to how salty the water is.  It’s pretty amazing how interrelated everything is in our atmosphere.],
      • Climatic research offices such as the one located in Boulder, Colorado.  Climate Research Offices study EVERYTHING that happens in the atmosphere, mainly severe weather but also everything else in-between.  And,
    • NASA also requires a full office compliment of Meteorologists both on the ground and in-flight operations.  The current mission in operation on board the International Space Station is called “Mission to Planet Earth,” where meteorologists are studying the Earth’s atmosphere from space.  Our growing concern of the changing climates of the world needs to be analyzed and understood more deeply.  Also, NASA is studying the climates of distant planets.  Our next landing will be on Mars, and meteorologists are needed for this mission, as the astronauts’ lives will depend upon them.

Will there be meteorologists aboard the flight?

Yes, Mission Meteorologists will be on board these future missions, either to be placed at orbiting stations or on the surface for future landings.  Mars can produce some nasty windstorms and this can affect landing, recovery or departure operations.  You don’t have to be trained as an “Official” Astronaut anymore to be taken up in the Space Shuttle, NASA can give you some training and then away you go!

[Note:  This line of questioning took place prior to the Space Shuttle Columbia’s tragic loss. 

Are there many former military people working in the Weather Service?

Yes, there are, years ago the NWS would hire directly from the services to take advantage of their expertise and experience.  Many have gone through on the job training and acquired their college degrees while working with the NWS.  Now many colleges and universities are graduating a lot of educated students to draw upon for appointment in the NWS.  It’s now a requirement to have a four-year degree. I was one of the lucky ones to get in before it was needed.  [http://www.nws.noaa.gov/careers.html lists current job openings.]

 What inspired you to get into Meteorology?

I always had the deep thirst for all sciences but Meteorology really stuck with me through my early school years.  My 9th grade science teacher had such a “Passion” for weather that poured out unto us students like a waterfall.  I give him the credit for allowing me to reach out and capture this wonderful profession for myself!  I served in the Air Force as an Aircraft Control and Warning Specialist and using specialized tracking radars we would control the skies with our military fighters and support aircraft, guiding them around storm systems.  [Isn’t there a computer game like that?]  This experience has greatly enhanced my knowledge of meteorology and helped me land this position with the weather service.

Was there any particular weather event that inspired you?

1957, standing with my Dad on a little farm in Northern Minnesota.  I was 8 years old.  We watched what was to become the most destructive Tornado ever to hit Fargo, North Dakota.  Our farm was north of Moorhead, Minnesota just across the river from Fargo.  The mighty Red River of the North ran beside our farm.  There, this Tornado, after destroying hundreds of homes, came to the very edge of the river right in front of us, (3 blocks away).  It was gigantic and black with parts of the sky visible around it.  It stopped right there in front of us and after 10 minutes it lifted into the cloud and passed right over us.  To this day, Kim, I see that stark vivid image of terror, so powerful and untamed yet so serene and pure in nature.  I knew since then I would meet these dragons many more times in my future, and I have.

 After spending 28 years in the Weather Service what do you feel are the pros and cons of this job?

Pros:  To be a part of the latest in technology in observing nature in it’s pure and untamed form, and to work in a field of science that controls our lives each and everyday.  To be a part of the team that issues the warnings and SAVES LIVES!  What greater reward could there be?

Cons: I can only think of one…  Weather occurs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year without regard to holidays, birthdays or special events.  Your family needs to support your position and understand that you could be away sometimes when you are needed at home.  Weather never sleeps.  So we work “rotating shifts” that run around the clock.

There are three basic shifts:

  • The Dayshift 8am to 4pm,
  • The Swing shift from 4pm to midnight and
  • The “Killer” shift from midnight to 8am.

For some, rotating shifts that change each week are the hardest to get use to.