Weather Blog

Everything you wanted to know about being a meteorologist

Everything you wanted to know about being a meteorologist

In Part 2 of our three-part blog series, we're answering some of the most popular questions about what we do as meteorologists. These have been compiled from years of e-mailed student interviews.

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What are the specific duties that you must do?

We get into the weather center around 2 p.m. and spend a good 20-55 minutes (depending on the day) compiling and getting the forecast together. We'll pour over the forecast models, check in what others are thinking, and then decide how we're going to do the broadcast.

Those forecast models take the most time as there are several different ones to view, and each model has several different products to view -- surface temperatures, expected rain, expected wind, temperatures at the 850 mb level of the atmosphere, etc. It's then using your experience to A) decode the models and B) decide which one is best for the situation, or whether to take a hybrid of the forecasts and go out on your own.

Once we get a general picture inside our head of the forecast, we then go through and write out the temperatures for both the tomorrow forecast maps for all the cities, and the extended forecast for Seattle. The final step is putting all that data into the weather computer and get it ready for air.

That takes about the last 30-60 minutes before we go on air. Steve goes on three times during the 4 p.m. show, once on the 5 p.m. news and twice at 6:00. We then start the process over for the 11 p.m. news.

In between newscasts, Steve records a bunch of weather forecasts for our radio partners, and we answer phones and a ton of weather-related e-mail (We try to answer every one!) It's very hectic on big weather days keeping on top of the latest warnings and making sure the maps and the Web are always updated.  All in all, it can be about 2-3 hours or preparation time for each news show.

What kind of special skills are needed?

For a general meteorologist, it's about being able to understand a lot of science and have a good skill in recognizing patterns.

Any trained meteorologist can read on a forecast model that low pressure is moving in with a trailing cold front, and 850 mb temperatures are dropping to -12 degrees C and wind pattern is favorable for convergence.

But it takes experience to recognize what that pattern means for your forecasting area, and that you better start telling the DOT to get the snow plows ready in Everett as they're looking at a potentially 4-6" of Convergence Zone snow.

In that sense, you can take 5 well-trained meteorologists -- one from Seattle, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and Denver and give them a weather chart of Seattle. All five will be able to read the chart, but the one from Seattle will have the best chance of getting the forecast right, because he (or she) will have the most experience in knowing what that chart means. Same would go for the weather person in Los Angeles having a better grip of weather down there.

But for a TV weathercaster, a very important skill is being able to translate that scientific forecast into a forecast people at home can understand. And the best are those that excel in that ability. (Being creative doesn't hurt, either :) )

What education is needed?

Generally speaking a Bachelor of Science in Atmospheric Sciences/Meteorology is usually required to be a meteorologist. For research and teaching positions, you'll need a Masters or Doctorate degree.

How early do you need to wake up each day and what kind of hours do you spend in the office?

Personally, I work roughly a 10:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. shift, but every weather job is different and unique. Steve puts in way more than 40 hours between his public appearances and community work.

Other weather jobs you'll find the hours vary, and a 9-to-5 job is rare. Since weather goes 24/7, many companies that hire weather forecasters (including the gov't/National Weather Service) will need someone to work overnight and weekend shifts. Holidays are hard to come by as well. You usually start on the off-peak shifts, and move to the more normal daytime shifts as you gain experience and seniority.

What type of science and/or technology do you use in your career?

Satellite images, radars, and most of all, computer models. We also have about 7 computers in there, plus Web/Internet resources.

How often is your analysis correct?

100% :) OK, it's hard to gauge. Generally, were score about 80% in getting temperature right within 2 degrees and 90 percent within 4 degrees. As for rain, that's hard to quantify since around here, it'll rain in some spots and not in others. But we're very good with a general forecast, pretty good with 2-3 days out, and then it slowly decreases in accuracy as you go beyond 4 days. Beyond 6-7 days, it's a crap shoot.

How has technology affected being a Meteorologist?

Greatly. As computers get faster and faster, the forecasting models are able to do a better job in predicting the conditions of the skies. Also, the Internet has been a fantastic boom, as it's allowed greater dissemination of weather data, and allows us to have access to incredible amounts of weather information that wasn't available sooner.

The invention of NEXRAD Doppler Radar in the early 1990s has helped us be able to track storms better in the short term, and the addition of satellite photos in the late 70s really helped those along the Pacific Ocean see what's coming. Before that, we had to rely on what few ships were out there to tell us what was happening.

Is this a difficult field to get into?

Not any harder than other fields, I'd suppose. The trick is, it takes about 2-3 years of living in an area to get a good feel for how their weather works. So it's a bonus to try and get a job where you live now, but you can learn anywhere.

What is the average pay in your field?

My job is somewhat unique in that non-on-air meteorologists are very rare to find these days, although most of my day is supplemented by helping out on their main web site in addition to weather duties. I also don't have much experience with the non-TV weather world.

As for on-air TV jobs, salaries varies widely among TV weather positions. Those just starting in really small cities usually begin at minimum wage (roughly $15,000-$18,000 a year) to $20,000-$25,000 a year. The very top of the range is in the largest cities, such as New York and Los Angeles. Main weather anchors there can make around $1 million a year or more. In between, it varies among size of city, experience, and which TV shows you're responsible for.

For other jobs, check out these links from the American Meteorological Society:

Job Market & Salary Outlook

AMS and UCAR Salary Surveys. (Note that is from 1993. These numbers should be higher now.)

What advice would you give someone who wanted to be a meteorologist?

Just do well in math and science, and take as many classes as you can. It's really not until you get to be a junior in college that you really get into weather classes, but you will need a lot of calculus, physics, and other sciences before you start your degree classes.

You can also do research on the Web just to familiarize yourself with the basic weather information, like what is high pressure, what is a barometer. You can check out weather.about.com to get started. There's also more links on our Web site here:

http://www.komotv.com/weather/faq/wx_jobs.asp

Also, take as many internships as you can. It's a great way to get your face known in the business.

What type of other jobs did you have before this one and where?

I worked as an intern at the National Weather Service in Seattle the summer between by junior and senior year at the Univ. of Washington. Then, I worked as a TV intern at KIRO-TV for a quarter before getting hired at KOMO right after graduation. Those two internships were huge in getting me my first job!

If you're curious about Steve Pool, he also went to UW. He began as an intern here at KOMO and then worked his way up as a reporter and sportscaster (bet you didn't know that :) ) before taking over weather from Ray Ramsay in 1978 I believe. He's been doing weather ever since.

What kinds of jobs can you get that involve meteorology?

There's plenty: National Weather Service/Public forecasting, TV Broadcast Weather, Media Weather-Provider Companies (they help provide weather forecasts to cable networks and newspapers), Air Quality Agencies, Insurance Industry (to help insurance agents track where storm damage might occur and where to send extra help for claims), Aerospace Companies (aviation weather forecasting), University-based Research, Forensic Meteorology (giving expert testimony in how weather affected a crime, or property damage from a storm, or car crashes, etc), Military weather forecasters and private industries will hire weather forecasters to keep track of problems along shipping routes so they can reroute deliveries. The agriculture industry needs meteorologists to help with crop forecasting...

What made you want to have a job related to weather?

I've always been interested in weather. My Dad was in the Coast Guard (search and rescue pilot) but we were always stationed in the Northwest until I was 13...we were then transferred to North Carolina. I somehow became afraid of thunderstorms, and used to watch the TV Weatherman there every night to see if thunderstorms were coming. (Don Slater at WAVY-TV in Norfolk, Virginia. Last I checked, he was still there doing the weather.) That fear blossomed into more and more interest about weather in general.

Thunderstorms don't scare me as much, but I am glad to be back in Seattle where they are pretty rare.

Do you enjoy what it is that you do?

Indeed! It's a very challenging and rewarding process to take a complex forecast and turn it into something that everyone can understand and use. It's also never the same day twice -- and that keeps it from ever being boring. But I think just being able to provide information and helping people plan their day around the weather is a very rewarding challenge.

What's the worst part?

For me, I think the worst part would be the hours. We usually have a set-shift, but we rarely get all the holidays because weather happens every day. And on big weather days, you can put in a ton of hours.

How does your job effect the time you have to spend with family & friends?

It can really vary. TV Weather is pretty stable in that newscasts happen at certain times, so your schedule is pretty well set. However, when weather is a major story, you can count on working many extra hours, and on weekends if necessary.

Now, in the general field of meteorology, the schedules can vary. Since weather happens 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, most weather companies require a staff 24 hours a day. I know National Weather Service Forecasters working varying shifts...sometimes on weekends, sometimes 11pm to 7am. And you'll rotate your shifts and weekends each week. So that probably cuts into family/friend times, but you learn to work around it.

What do you get for vacations?

Most get two weeks to start as a base, but in TV news, we get an extra week of vacation in exchange for not getting the small holidays -- so we don't get President's Day or Memorial Day or 4th of July or Labor Day, etc. (We do get Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day, though), but that goes back to the weather never takes a day off, so you can't just not show up.

How do you think Meteorology will change in the next 5 or 10 years?

I'd say forecasting computers will get better and better, allowing more detailed forecasts, and possible longer-range forecasts. The Weather Service is already testing a 15-day forecast model. It's not very good yet, but it'll get better.

What are some of the more crazy weather anomalies you have to deal with when forecasting the weather?

The biggest and most common one is the Puget Sound Convergence Zone, which forms on somewhat of a whim and can glide north and south as it sees fit. We can generally get an idea of when one might form, but knowing how long it'll last or where it'll form is always a challenge. The big snow events of late November and earlier this month that hit during the commute were Convergence Zones that raced south.

There are countless others. I still remember working my first Fourth of July for Steve Pool about three weeks after I started here in 1994, and there was a freak rain system that formed over Everett and then drifted south over Seattle, soaking everyone down at Myrtle Edwards Park for the show. 15 years later, I'm still feeling burned on that one.

(I say "freak" rain system at the time. In retrospect, it was a convergence zone, but that was the days before TV had weather radar.)

How about the Farmer's Almanac? How do they do?

There is a method to the Farmer's Alamanac's long range forecasts, but they keep it as a closely guarded secret. It's some sort of hybrid of historical weather patterns, sun spots, and astrology, but the exact formula is guarded.

If you have any other questions, feel free to give me a shout!