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WeatherWords: An interview with Beau Dodson, Meteorologist

What’s your earliest weather memory?

I grew up on a farm, on a hill. I could see the weather coming for miles and miles. My earliest weather memories were the blizzards of the late 1970’s. We experienced 19″ of snow during one of those events. Drifts were over the fences at our farm. We were out of school for an extended period of time. It was bitterly cold, as well. Temperatures dropped well below zero. I remember playing in the snow. Building snowmen. Riding our three-wheelers. It was fantastic. I fell in love with snow! I used to wake up in the night and take my flashlight to see if the snow had arrived. Back then, weather forecasting was not quite as accurate as today. We had several winter storm warnings that ended up without snow.

So when snow was forecast, it was not a sure bet. I would wake up several times in the night.

I would sometimes sneak out the back door to watch the snow falling. With the flashlight in hand it would look like diamonds falling from the sky. I would sometimes walk down our long lane to see how the roads were fairing, hoping to get out of school, of course! I would take my weather radio to school with me. I am pretty sure I was the only kid that was allowed to bring a radio to school. I received my first weather radio from Sears. I was in sixth or seventh grade.

During recess I would listen to the National Weather Service. I remember when they used to have Operation SKYWARN. The weather radio would say “Operation SKYWARN indicates there will be a slight risk of severe thunderstorms today across southeast Missouri and southern Illinois.”

During moderate or high risk days I would play sick! I would stay home and watch for the storms to develop. The teachers would let me watch the weather during my lunch hour.

We didn’t have satellite or cable television at home back then. We just had three channels (on the television.) When the Weather Channel came along, I had to go to a friends house to watch it, or my dad’s business. He had cable at his office. I loved The Weather Channel. I would sometimes call my friends house. His mom would turn on the Weather Channel and watch the severe weather update. She would then tell me where they had outlined in red color. That was the severe weather outlook.

Eventually, my grandmother would take me to the flight service station in Paducah, Kentucky. Barkley Regional Airport. They had a dial-up modem and could pull up any radar in the United States. It would take a few minutes to load the radar graphic. I was in heaven. They would even save the facsimile weather maps for me.

I still remember the smell of the wet facsimile paper. I would watch the satellite images being spit out by the machine. It was slow but inch by inch it would print out the latest satellite, weather map, severe weather map, and other maps.

They would save bundles of those maps for me. I would take them home and look at the maps and see what caused the winter storm or severe weather outbreak.

Eventually, the NWS moved to Paducah, KY and opened an office. I would go over and bug them. Some of them let me watch the radar in their radar room. The room had a large console with a small radar screen. You could watch the sweep go around live. One of their meteorologists showed my how to see hail being spit out the top of thunderstorms.

Great memories from my childhood.

I never dreamed that we would have so much data at our fingertips. My phone now holds more data than the NWS had back then. Technology has come so far. It makes me wonder what the future will hold!

Have you ever had a frightening weather experience?

We had a high wind event (derecho) back in the early 1980’s. I had never seen clouds like that. It was in the afternoon hours. The sky in the north turned dark. Eventually it was almost black. The clouds were so thick and low. I remember there was a motorcyclist about a quarter of a mile away and he had pulled over right before the wind and rain hit.

My family was outside. My grandparents owned a house next to ours. We were running from the barn and my grandmother’s house, toward our home, about three or four hundred feet away. For some reason, I had a metal pan in my hand. The wind grabbed it and wooshed it away. I was leaning into the wind, and thought it would take me too.

All of us eventually got to the house. The house shook. I peeked outside a few times and the wind was pushing the trees with a force I had never seen before. Several of our trees fell to the ground. Many branches were ripped off the trees.

I would estimate the wind was over 80 mph. I was sure my heart was going to beat right out of my chest. The rush of adrenaline was tangible.

I have always told people to have a healthy fear of weather. here is nothing wrong with that. I have witnessed many disasters over my years. I am always in awe at what nature can do when man stands in its way.

Who is your weather hero?

This is a tough question. I grew up watching Cal Sisto, the late Don McNeely (who recently passed away at the age of 88), and Jim Rasor.

I can remember Don McNeely had a teletype machine. During severe weather, he would sit next to it. You could here the click and clack of the machine. It had an alarm on it. When the NWS would issue a warning, the teletype machine would sound and an alarm and then Don McNeely would have to wait for it to type out the warning. He would then read it.

He had a map, covered with glass, and he would use a to draw on tornado watches. He would draw in the warnings, as well.

I interned under Cal Sisto and really enjoyed my time with him. He is a great forecaster. He was always calm. He also loved snow.

I can remember they had their own radar at the WPSD TV 6 television station. I don’t recall what type of radar, but it had six DBZ levels. Black was the highest level. Black meant very heavy rain and possibly hail. It was rare to find yourself under their level-six color.

You could watch the radar sweep live on television.

Jim Rasor from WSIL was another meteorologist that I grew up on. He also was calm during severe weather events. I have learned a lot from Jim Rasor over the years. His balanced approach to weather adds credibility to his message. If Jim says he is concerned about the severe weather potential, then people pay attention. He does not hype weather events. He makes for a great mentor.

What’s your favorite weather movie?

“Twister,” of course! I suppose many meteorologists would tell you the same. The opening scene actually brought tears to my eyes. That scene when the family took shelter was so real. It made me emotional because I know people who have died in tornadoes while taking shelter. The opening scene of the movie, at least to me, is the most intense part of the movie.

I am not a fan of severe weather. I would rather work a snow event. Severe weather forecasting is stressful. his is even more true when you know tornadoes are on the ground doing damage. You know that is real. People are being hurt. People are losing their belongings. It makes me sick to my stomach to watch radar and see debris in the air. I am thinking, well, that is debris from Brookport in the air showing up on radar. My heart races. There is an intense feeling of helplessness. All I can do is get the message out and hope people are paying attention.

What’s the most common general misconception about weather?

Weather apps. Weather apps are hurting the field of meteorology. People think we can forecast 15 days in advance. Their app does that. People don’t realize that most weather apps are simply the GFS model forecast. There is no human involved. Weather apps do well when the weather is nice. They don’t do well during winter storms or tornado outbreaks. People think meteorologists are forecasting for their app. The app my business uses is my forecast. I hand type the forecast and then hit send. People then get it on their app. I don’t automate the process. Anything sent out comes straight from my keyboard.

Most apps are not like that. People then turn around and think the meteorologists don’t know what they are doing. We do know what we are doing. I usually tell people that their meteorologist should bat between 80% and 90%. Meaning, they should be accurate that amount of time.

No forecast is ever perfect. Someone always receive less rain than others. Someone always receive more or less snow than forecast. That is just the nature of weather. But, for the most part, meteorology has come a long way. Accuracy is more than people realize.

People make fun of meteorologists and say that it must be nice to get paid and be wrong 50% of the time.

The truth is that many professions are wrong a certain percent of time. Electricians don’t always know what the problem is. They may have to try three or four things before they figure it out. Economists are frequently wrong when it comes to forecasting what the stock market will or won’t do. Doctors are sometimes wrong.

Meteorologists are accurate most of the time. Meteorology is not an exact science. This is especially true of long range forecasting.

 

Beau Dodson is a the chief meteorologist for WeatherTalk, out of Paducah, Kentucky, which focuses on forecasting, graphics, public awareness, and management. He is also the president of the Shadow Angel Foundation, a charitable project that provides new teddy bears for children in stressful situations, in collaboration with other nonprofit organizations.

Follow him on Twitter, @beaudodson and sign up to receive real-time text message alerts from Beau Dodson during severe and winter weather at Beaudodsonweather.com

Check out Beau’s YouTube channel for weather analysis for southeast Missouri, southern Illinois, southwest Indiana, western Kentucky, northeast Arkansas, and parts of western Tennessee.

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