Do You Have What It Takes to Predict the Future? The Reality Behind Becoming a Meteorologist
A new reality show is throwing folks in front of a green screen and jamming them into wind tunnels to see if they have the guts to be America’s next great weatherperson. It’s common to brush off meteorologists as a group of lying guessers, but it takes an incredible effort to accurately predict the future every day.
Meteorologists on Twitter are rumbling with an uneasy curiosity over a new reality show on a cable network famous for Conan and preempting episodes of Seinfeld to show midday baseball games. This new program on TBS, America’s Next Weatherman, is supposed to be a reality show that parodies other reality shows, cable news, and the goofy seriousness of your friendly neighborhood weather dork. The show asks a handful of weather enthusiasts to perform wacky stunts in order to compete for a sum of money and a chance to present the weather on CNN for a few minutes.
I would rather whack a piñata full of tsetse flies than watch this show.
It’s not that it’s a particularly bad program for casual viewers—disclaimer: I’ve only seen the commercials—but no matter what they say or do, the first five minutes would induce a rage stroke worse than the one I got when I hate-watched the debate last week. To give TBS some credit, though, at least the program is sort of about the weather. You just know that there’s a mid-level Weather Channel executive kicking the wall of a dank control room in some forgotten part of the building because they passed up the chance to create a show like this to air alongside Scruffy Huffing Woodsfest, Rushing Cussing Truckers, and Where The Hell Did We Send Mike Seidel This Time? (I would so watch that—Mike Seidel is awesome.)
There is a palpable fear among some meteorologists that America’s Next Weatherman will give its seven viewers the wrong idea about the work that goes into becoming a meteorologist and forecasting the weather on a day-to-day basis. Choosing meteorology as an academic pursuit and eventual career can be rewarding, but it is tough as hell.
Here’s a small sampling of what it takes to be a meteorologist, and some advice if you want to get into the field someday.
I’ll start by saying that I do not hold a meteorology degree. I completed a minor in meteorology, so I’m not faking my way through The Vane or anything. That being said, I’m no Greg Forbes.
I grew up wanting to be a meteorologist. I chose a college based on my desire to be a meteorologist. I dreamed of one day running The Weather Channel or growing old in a comfy position with the National Weather Service. A lifelong career as a meteorologist was a foregone conclusion for me until I actually started taking meteorology in college. Two years into the degree, though, I realized my heart just wasn’t in it anymore (he says on the weather blog he runs), but everyone’s experience is different.
Math and Physics
. @UGAAtmosSci students had thermodynamics test today. their review board. This is meteorology. luv this pic.twitter.com/whfxSmcvTK— Marshall Shepherd (@DrShepherd2013) March 19, 2015
If you want to be a meteorologist, understand that by the time you graduate, you’ll also have a minor in physics and you’ll stand one or two courses away from double-majoring in math. Unless you channel your inner indigo child and figure out a better way to do it without numbers, meteorology is almost all math and physics. Whether you’re running complex computer models or calculating how much instability is available for thunderstorms to develop, everything in weather is math and physics. It’s a deeply technical science. You can’t escape it.
I went to the University of South Alabama in Mobile. It’s a great little school—good people, good professors for the most part, terrible food that almost killed me (another story), and solid academic programs that give you a big-school education at a slightly reduced price. The exception is their math department. I had two professors who were good at teaching math. The rest of them were terrible at it, and it was up to you to teach yourself the entirety of the course material.
Few subject matters are out of reach if you have a great teacher who can guide you through the material. I once took a statistics course with a professor who was so good that not one person who showed up to the exams failed. He didn’t pad our grades. He didn’t give us easy exams. A class of more than 40 people understood the complicated material because he was good at his job.
The number one reason that meteorology students drop out of the major is because they can’t handle the math or physics. I failed Calculus I twice. No amount of tutoring or online guides or textbook reviews helped. The instructors taught the lessons as if we already knew the material and new concepts were simply review, and had fits if we asked questions or got lost. The ineptitude of the math department at that school was (and probably still is) a major point of contention for science majors at the university, and it’s a theme I see play out again and again when I talk to meteorology students at universities around the country.
You need to have a solid foundation in math and physics if you want to be a meteorologist. Don’t brush off high school algebra and trigonometry—the stuff you learn here is material you’ll have to recite by heart in higher-level courses. If you’re shaky on math and still want to pursue a career as a master prognosticator, seek out colleges with stellar math departments, or at least get ready to take advantage of tutoring programs in your spare time.
If you’re an aspiring meteorologist, don’t get scared off by the math and physics. It’s what helps you understand why the atmosphere does what it does. It’s hard, but many meteorology majors get through it with flying colors.
Let’s say you’re a math whiz and you got through all of that without issue. Now comes the forecasting. It’s a running joke that meteorologists don’t know what they’re doing, that they’re just guessing, that they can be wrong half the time and keep their jobs. Ha ha, so witty!
Weather forecasting is one of the only careers where you’re expected and able to predict the future with a scary level of accuracy. For example, across much of the United States, The Weather Channel’s forecasts are accurate something like 80% of the time, if not higher. Local news stations and National Weather Service offices also do a very good job at predicting weather for their jurisdictions. Accurately predicting what the atmosphere will do days before it happens is phenomenal when you think about it. This isn’t some Miss Cleo routine.
The forecasting process is a rigorous exercise of knowledge, experience, and the “art” of instinctively knowing what different weather features will do. Contrary to popular belief, models don’t forecast for you. Forecasting is very much a value-added process—reading a model verbatim and passing that off as your forecast will give you a wrong forecast every time.
A more accurate term for these computer programs is “model guidance”—the models are guiding you through the process of creating your own forecast. The latest runs of the GFS, NAM, and Euro models could all show three wildly different solutions. Your job is to figure out which ones are spitting out junk and which ones are closer to what will really happen, and working toward your forecast from there.
Oh, and not to mention the fact that if you’re wrong, people could die! But no pressure.
The forecast process can be a lot of fun, and it’s satisfying when you predict something that happens just as you expected. There are thousands of meteorologists out there, and if you ping any one of them on Twitter right now, they’ll shoot back that they’re having the time of their life in their dream jobs. Meteorologists love what they do. You should be excited to go to your major classes. This is what you’re going to do for the rest of your life.
Most people will love it all—the math, the physics, the forecasting, the intricate, detailed workings of our atmosphere and the processes that influence it. If you find that you dread it, change majors like I did, and do it soon enough that it doesn’t screw with your transcript or finances.
If you’re a diehard weather buff but can’t stomach the thought of going all-in and pursuing a degree in meteorology, check out a minor in the discipline. It gives you the best of both worlds: you get to satiate your interest in our atmosphere while working toward the degree of your choice. Most minors in meteorology give you the added benefit of teaching you many of the things you would learn as a major, just without the complex math and physics to go along with it. With the exception of a few programs, courses offered for meteorology minors teach you how to get from A to Z without the twenty-four agonizing steps in between. They teach you how to predict the formation of a surface low near the right-entrance region of a jet streak without forcing you to figure out the equation that makes such a phenomenon possible.
You won’t rise to the level of Ted Fujita as a meteorology minor, but it’s a satisfying academic pursuit for weather geeks who have their heart set on another career path.
When you forecast the weather, as you will find through much of your life, you need to learn how to be wrong. A lot. And not only that, but you need to learn how to be wrong with grace and humility and harbor a sincere willingness to learn from your mistakes. Meteorology is a discipline that will shatter your ego and dance a jig of glee on its tiny remnants.
Even if you think you know a good bit about the weather, it’s always shocking to realize how little you really know once you start taking classes on the topic. There are so many unbelievably cocky, smug, know-it-all meteorology majors who walk into class on the first day like it’s a speed bump on their road to greatness, only to look like they ran through a meat grinder by the end of their first semester. You kind of have to be full of yourself to want to predict the future for the rest of your life, but you have to learn how to be full of yourself in a constructive manner. Be Kanye West with purpose instead of Kanye West for the sake of Kanye West.
Here’s a thoroughly embarrassing case in point from a couple of years ago. When I was still in college and before I started The Vane, I used to blog about the weather at a well-known political website. One day, I opened my laptop to see people freaking out because the weather models showed a catastrophic hurricane hitting a densely populated area six days out.
Weather models have a colorful history when it comes to spinning up scary hurricanes in the medium and long range that never come to fruition, or if they do, the storms are considerably weaker and stray far away from the model’s predicted track. Faced with yet another round of social media panic, I wrote a post telling people not to freak out over the models because the potential storm was still six days away, lots will change, and based on the history of models showing cataclysmic storms that never develop, the storm probably wouldn’t play out as they were showing, eventually curving out to sea. My thinking was in line with the National Hurricane Center’s official forecast at the time, so I felt pretty confident in saying what I did since the experts were on my side.
The storm was Hurricane Sandy.
My naive desire to calm the early panic blinded me to the fact that the models were eerily and unusually correct so far ahead of the storm. I wanted to crawl into a hole and never come out. I still cringe when I think about it. Most meteorologists (and active weather geeks) will have an experience like that. I’ve grown and learned since then. It’s what you have to do. The very nature of predicting the future means you’re going to be wrong, and sometimes when you screw up, you will go down in a spectacular ball of flames. “Live and learn” has to be your motto if you don’t want to find another line of work.
It probably won’t come as a surprise that meteorology is a highly competitive field. Graduating with a degree in the field today is like attending a giant cake walk with hundreds of participants all vying to plant themselves in enough seats for a just few of them.
Don’t set your heart on getting a job with the National Weather Service or a media outlet. There are hundreds of private companies searching for meteorologists. Agriculture, aviation, energy, transport, shipping, space, engineering, and even tech companies all need meteorologists to achieve their various goals and keep their employees and operations safe. It’s pretty hard to fly an airplane without a meteorologist there to tell you if you’re running into a hail storm. (Okay, bad example.) There are even jobs in the field that you wouldn’t think exist, kind of like mine—angry weather blogger—which I plan to fill for a long time to come, but thanks for your résumé (and please don’t fire me).
Don’t think that all of meteorology is forecasting, either. There is always a need for engineers and technicians and developers who can invent and maintain new technologies to predict and detect the weather. For example, meteorologists are currently developing the next generation of weather radar called phased array, which will be light years better than what we have today.
Regardless of your career path, the most important skill a meteorologist (or weather geek) can possess is communication. You need to be able to tell your audience what’s going on and what they need to do to plan their actions. Your goal is to make people care about the weather even if they don’t. Your weather forecast is useless if you can’t effectively present it to your audience.
Speaking of audiences, people suck. Meteorologists have to know how to deal with people. I have the great pleasure of mercilessly mocking my detractors (because most of them are unhinged chemtrail truthers), but places like the National Weather Service or Conglomocorp won’t let you treat your angry annoyances in such a fun way.
You will bust a forecast. People will get very angry with you. Quite honestly, people will get angry with you over nothing. You can predict a 100% chance of rain on Saturday afternoon, and you’ll get hate mail or angry phone calls because people will brush off your forecast and go about their outdoor plans anyway. Meteorologists in the media have gotten death threats when they call for snow in their forecast. Like I said, people suck.
You’ll have to learn how to brush off the misdirected anger and accept constructive criticism when it’s valid. It’s hard to deal with people venting at you—especially if they make it personal—but people suck, and meteorology is a people business. If you scare off the people, your forecasts are useless blips in a vast expanse of nothing.
Weather Is Awesome
There aren’t many things on Earth more exciting than the weather. It never gets old listening to a deep crack of thunder that rumbles without end, or watching a hurricane swirl over the ocean in near-real-time thanks to a satellite orbiting thousands of miles above our heads, or even spotting the first snowflake of what could be the biggest blizzard in decades. There’s almost always something exciting going on with the weather, and no two events are ever the same.
Meteorology is an incredible field that people take for granted. They don’t appreciate the intense work that goes into this science until the fruits of that labor save their butt one day, and even then they don’t give it much thought. As the human population reproduces like bunnies and expands into areas we didn’t care about a few years ago, accurate weather forecasts and the development of new technologies to monitor hazards are more important than ever.
So many people have this mistaken idea that meteorology is standing out in a storm or pointing at cities on a green screen. That’s just the surface. You don’t see the hundreds of scientists who made it possible to choose that live shot location or predict the temperatures in those cities on the map. No reality show will ever be able to explain what goes into being a meteorologist. It’s not a field for everybody, but it’s one that provides a great reward if you’re up for the challenge of becoming America’s next great weatherperson.
[Images: AP, Tropical Tidbits, NOAA, AP, Gibson Ridge]
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If you enjoy The Vane (of course you do!), then you’ll love the author’s new book—The Extreme Weather Survival Manual—which is available for pre-order on Amazon and comes out on October 6.