Classroom Visitor Ignites a Storm
Brad Panovich remembers the day his teacher invited a local meteorologist into his elementary classroom. He was intrigued and knew at that point, he wanted to be a meteorologist. Through the years, Brad worked hard toward his goal by researching what it would require of him and by buckling down in the areas of science and math. It was the science of weather that he loved and what he wanted to pursue. He never wanted to be a newscaster and be on television, but now that he is the Chief Meteorologist for WCNC in Charlotte, NC, he uses his position to educate his viewers about his passion – the science of meteorology. Predicting the weather is all about the science, math, technology, and how it is communicated. Brad says, “I can’t really emphasize how much math, science and computing takes place before we even go on the air. The On-Air part is the easiest part of my job because I’m just presenting the work that I’ve been doing all day.”
No Crystal Balls in Weather Prediction!
The United States has one of the best weather services in the world. The National Weather Service and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) basically collect all the weather data from weather stations on the ground, weather balloons, satellites and radar data. Meteorologists take this collected information and use their science, math and technology skills to predict the weather. Looking at this collected data, they get a rough idea of what the weather will be and can then start playing in some of the local factors to predict the weather (for example: drought means the dry ground heats the air and affects high temperature, whereas, snow on the ground cools the air). According to Brad, forecasters are never going to be right 100% of the time, but it is their job to try to eliminate the number of times they are wrong. In his words, “A weather forecast is just a huge word problem with thousands of variables. If you change just one of the variables, it has a small impact on the short-term, but you multiply by 6-7 days into the future, and it can have a large impact.”
Plotting surface temperatures and contouring are very important in determining weather cold fronts. Brad says “it’s like connecting the dots.” Using a pencil to draw the lines and connect the surface temperatures, you can see the dips which represent cold fronts. In summer, a cold front is more of a shift in winds causing drier air and lower dew point; the air temperature may only drop 1-2°. Brad prefers to use a pencil and draw the lines rather than have the computer do it because sometimes the computer can smooth over subtle changes which can make a big difference when dealing with tornadoes and hurricanes.
Another weather indicator Brad likes to watch is weather in other parts of the world. For instance, winter typhoons in the Western Pacific Ocean. When these typhoons go north, it is called re-curving and can sometimes cause the jet stream to buckle and eventually form a dip over the U.S. Brad states that “Some of our biggest arctic outbreaks have happened when there was a big re-curving typhoon off the coast of the Philippines, Japan, or China. These are really important to look at because sometimes 6-7 days down the road, they will have a huge impact on the U.S.” Brad refers to it as a “butterfly effect” where one thing happening in one part of the world is eventually going to have a big trickle down effect here in the U.S. As a meteorologist, it is important to look at weather everywhere, not just in one area.
Brad also knows the importance of communication in forecasting the weather. He says, “Science can be complicated, but if you put it in the right terms, anybody can learn.” It is this philosophy that makes his viewers love him. Brad prefers to tell the weather in 3-4 different ways at different times throughout his forecast. In his experience, people interpret some things better than others. For instance, some people interpret numbers better; some, colors; and some, charts, graphs or maps. By presenting the weather in different ways, Brad is ensuring that his viewers will know what the weather is going to be by the end of his forecast.
One thing Brad likes to do is tell people to “focus on the Dew Point rather than Relative Humidity; after all, ‘relative’ is a big quantifier which is oftentimes left off.” Relative Humidity changes based on the air temperature. For instance, Brad says, “it could be 100% humidity and be 0° outside, but nobody is going around saying ‘Boy, it’s muggy out here!’” On the other hand, Dew Point is an absolute scale like temperature is. The higher the Dew Point, the muggier it is; the lower the Dew Point, the drier it is. To help in communicating dew point in a day’s weather forecast, Brad sometimes uses the “Hair Cast,” which he says is pretty funny coming from a “bald guy!” This concept comes from the first hygrometers which were called “horse hair hygrometers.” These hygrometers used a needle and a piece of horse mane hair between 2 nails. They determined humidity based on whether the hair contracted or expanded. The same thing is true with human hair. If there is a lot of humidity in the air, hair will be curlier and frizzier. If the weather is dry, the hair will lay flatter.
Brad Panovich is passionate about the science of weather, and it comes across in the way he “teaches” his viewers. A favorite part of his job is speaking to classrooms where he can help teach students about meteorology and help them to understand that meteorology is something they can grow up and do if they really want to. Even if your classroom is hundreds or thousands of miles from Charlotte, NC, Brad would love to Skype with your class. To set up a time with Brad, please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also keep up with Brad through Facebook, Twitter and his blog site. Brad encourages students to do cool stuff with science and math and not be scared of these subjects. In his words, students should “find something they love and are passionate about. Then, the hard work and dedication come easy.”