\nJeff Masters is a founder of and Director of Meteorology for the internet’s oldest– and my favorite– weather website. But before creating the The Weather Underground with a handful of classmates in University of Michigan’s meteorology Ph.D. program, he was flying through Category 5 storms as a Hurricane Hunter. In the middle of one of the weirdest winters in recent memory, we talked with Masters about his website, the difference between weather and climate, and, of course, about storm chasing.
So you were one of those maniacs flying through hurricanes?
I was a hurricane hunter. Are we maniacal? I don’t know. It was just another day at the office.
Some kind of office. I read that you almost got killed in Hurricane Hugo.
I wasn’t married back then, and certainly was fearless as far as flying into severe weather goes. I thought it was a wonderful job.
What happened in that storm?
Basically we went in too low, flying at an altitude of 1,500 feet, which you shouldn’t do with a Category 5 hurricane. We didn’t know it was that strong at the time. We took 5 ½ G’s of acceleration, and the plane only holds together up to 6. The engine caught fire, there was extreme turbulence, and the pilot lost control. Fortunately, our momentum carried us into the eye, and the pilot got control about 800 feet above the waves, put out the engine fire and we were able to get out of that storm.
The internet sounds like a safer workplace. How did The Weather Underground come to be?
Back in the early 1990s, with four others at University of Michigan, we hit upon the idea of using the internet to do weather education. It seemed like a natural blend to use real time capabilities of the internet to do science education with weather.
It was the most successful internet site of any kind back in 1992. This was before there was a real web, so it was all text. We built off that success and got National Science Foundation grants. By 1995, when the web went commercial and the first web browsers became available, both the NSF and the university recommended that we form our own company and try to make our effort self-sustaining. So the five of us got together and came up with a website, and we’ve been building it ever since.
So what’s your focus now?
Hurricanes are a big part of my background, but my Ph.D. is in air pollution. So I’ve got expertise in both hurricanes and in air pollution and climate change.
Climate campaigners are often quick to discredit weathermen or meteorologists who speak out about climate change. But many are quick to quote you.
I am a meteorologist. I don’t do research in climate change. The best source of what’s going on in climate change is to get it directly from climate scientists themselves.
I’d also draw the distinction between meteorologists who have degrees in meteorology and TV weathermen who are called meteorologists but have no actual scientific training. For instance–John Coleman, who you hear quoted a lot, has no scientific training.
I tell people– don’t listen to me, don’t listen to Al Gore, don’t listen to the blogosphere. Listen to what the actual publishing climate scientists are saying in peer-reviewed scientific literature. In particular, the UN IPCC reports.
Those only come out every 5-6 years though. Are there other resources you check in on more regularly?
There is a good blog, RealClimate.org, that I look at a lot. It’s written by actively publishing climate scientists. They do a good job updating the latest research.
Do you think that, because climate is deterministic, a good meteorologist has to understand climate fairly well?
There’s an old quote: climate is what you expect; weather is what you get. The two phenomena are closely linked and follow the same laws. A meteorologist is trained on what will happen tomorrow. A climatologist take a long-term view.
This year the distinction between weather and climate is getting muddled. What the heck is going on this winter?
Snow is not the same thing as cold. You can get heavy snow in a relatively warm winter. In fact, if you look at the last 100 years of winters in the US, and you classify them as colder than average or warmer than average, you do see that you have more heavy snowstorms– of six plus inches– in warmer than average years. You need to have some moisture in the air to generate heavy snow.
Heavy snow is not an indication that there’s no global warming. You’ve got to look at the temperatures, and not only temperatures in one small region of the world like the mid-Atlantic, but globally. And if you look at the global temperatures, they show that last year, 2009, was the 2nd or 5th warmest year on record whether you look at NASA or NOAA. The decade of the 2000s was the warmest on record.
How do you think the public can be better educated?
It’s very hard to do that, because right now there are a lot of people who want the public to be uneducated and want to spread misinformation. I think the science of weather and climate is in bad shape right now. I don’t see any good fix for it, because when someone is spending tens of millions of dollars on PR campaigns, which is going on, to question the validity of the science of climate change, to emphasize the uncertainties and downplay whatever information is showing climate change, the public is not going to be well educated.