The Day After Tomorrow, 2012 – yeah, we’ve heard it all before. The world is ending and global warming may kill us. But how much of the noise can we really believe?
Jon Gottschalck, 39, provides local and regional forecasts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more commonly known as NOAA. Their National Weather Service weather service is the official voice of the U.S. government for issuing warnings during life threatening weather situations (think Snowpocalypse ’10).
The former NASA researcher has been pafmatssionate about weather since the age of 6, when he loved frolicking in the snow. Indeed, weather now consumes Gottschalck’s life – he often gets blamed (jokingly, he insists) at dinner parties for incorrect predictions. But the public doesn’t realize how far weather predictions have come in the past 30 years, he says. Read on for his explanation – and if the world is really ending.
Title: Head of Forecast Operations, Climate Prediction Center, NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]
Based out of: Camp Spring, MD
Graduated from: Penn State, Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in science
Previous jobs: Senior research association at University of Miami; research staff member at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
Job description in a sentence (or two): I manage 10 to 15 forecasters, and ensure that all operational forecasts are accurate and timely. I’m also responsible for interjecting any new ideas into operational forecasts.
Have you always been fascinated by the weather? I always knew I wanted to be a meteorologist. Since I was 6 years old, I always loved snow. That expanded from wanting to get a day off from school to my interest in extreme weather, like tornadoes, hurricanes, and heat waves. I wanted to learn more about it, so I made a decision to choose science as my major. Even now, after all these years, I still like it quite a bit.
During parties, do your conversations always fall back to weather? I can never get away from it – people are always asking me about the weather. Especially when things don’t work out, they blame us. [Laughs.]
What has worried you lately about trends in extreme weather? The past year or two of increased extreme weather has definitely raised eyebrows. Is it a bubble that will go back to a normal level soon, or a general increase to be expected over the next 30 years? That hasn’t been answered yet. We’re worried about it, but that work takes time.
Would you say you’re more worried than the general public? Frenzy develops among meteorologists with extreme weather. We congregate around computers and maps, generating our own vortex, getting very excited over it.
So walk me through your day. My days are never the same. But first thing in the morning, I make sure all the resources to make forecasts are available – like data sets and graphics. Then, I draft up forecast maps to make sure they’re accurate. You know, that they’re the right date, in the right locations, no obvious glitches. I know exactly what they should look like.
Then what’s usually on your afternoon agenda? Often, I’m involved in meetings and coordinating new research projects. I also work on my own set of research projects to help move forecast skills forward.
What types of research projects are you working on right now? I’m looking at how changes in the deep tropics – such as El Niño and La Niña – can have an impact on where we live [in the Northeast]. El Niño is characterized by unusually warm temperatures, and La Niña by unusually cool temperatures in the equatorial Pacific. We’re trying to learn as much as we can from tropical rainfall patterns to improve weather forecasts in the two, three, and four-week future.
Who have you always wanted to meet? Max Mayfield, the director of the National Hurricane Center during Hurricane Katrina.
How do you explain all the crazy weather lately, from tsunamis to hurricanes? There have been lots of media requests for us to explain what’s going on in relation to the climate. It’s difficult to say, because very often, these things [extreme weather events] just happen. It’s the normal variability in the atmosphere. There’s no clear metric bullet why this is happening, but it’s not necessarily related to climate change.
What did you think of the movie The Day After Tomorrow? It’s not realistic, and way over the top, even in our changing climate world.
Does your job deal with long-term climate change, like global warming? There are two types of climate change: long-term projections, like 100 years, and short-term climate projections, which is what we focus on. So we don’t really deal with global warming – we’ll send people to the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory to deal with those questions.
What did you do at NASA? I studied interactions between land and the atmosphere, and how that impacts climate.
Do you wear your pajamas inside out in hopes of snow days? We joke that when weather forecast models predict a big snowstorm a week or more ahead of time, [the snowstorm is] never going to happen. When the models don’t predict snow – that’s when there’s hope.
Something people don’t know about your job: The public doesn’t have a handle on how far weather forecasting has come over the past 30 to 40 years. Although predictions certainly fail at times, they’re relatively accurate, but the public is quick to criticize. When I was a child, forecasts wouldn’t go out more than four days in advance. Now, we issue detailed ones for a week and beyond. But no forecasts are foolproof, even 24-hour ones.
Something people don’t know about you: I’m a lot calmer at work than I am at home. I have three kids.
LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Want a career in weather? Jon Gottschalck tells you what you need to know.
1. Measure your interest in math and physics; those two subjects are the basis of meteorology. I’m talking about hardcore science, not just pretty radar pictures or maps. You also need a very good background in weather and climate, which can range from understanding synoptic meteorology (day-to-day weather) to understanding El Niño. One way to acquire this background is by interning or volunteering at a local weather center.
2. Hone your computer skills on a Windows-type PC. It’s essential to know computer programming techniques and languages to process, filter, and display weather data.
3. Subscribe to and read various weather and meteorology journals. Subscription costs can rack up, but you learn a lot about science, where the jobs are, and different mini-disciplines within meteorology – from climate to oceans to space weather. Weatherwise Magazine is a good introductory publication that includes a wide range of topics, and isn’t written it total scientific jargon.
What have you always wanted to know about climate? Comment below, and your questions will be relayed to Jon!
You can follow NOAA on Twitter at @usnoaagov.