In Our Own Words - National Weather Service Heritage
In Our Own Words...
As the National Weather Service celebrates its 150th Anniversary in 2020, NWS employees and retirees are sharing their own memories and thoughts about our heritage. Read their stories in their own words below.
We at the NWS Heritage Project can’t complete such an enormous task without you! Whether you’re a current or former employee of the NWS, your memories and stories help us better understand the history of our agency, how we got to where we are today, and where we will go next. If you’re interested in writing a story or even providing us with some background information on an event, technology, era, or other memory from your time at the NWS, please check out the following guide and forms:
Here, in his own words, are those of Chris Stachelski, Regional Cooperative Observing and Climate Services Program Manager, NWS Eastern Region, Bohemia, NY.
How An Interest In Weather and A Big Blizzard Triggered A Career Path In Climate and Weather Observations
Most meteorologists got their interest in weather at a very young age, likely from one big storm or a number of storms or by watching cloud formations. Mine was a gradual interest from a series of weather events in the 1980s when I grew up in New Jersey. The oldest memorable one was being getting chased off the boardwalk in Seaside Heights (in the pre-MTV and Jersey Shore days) in July 1983 by a severe thunderstorm that literally sent crowds running – including my family – and getting drenched by the rain. Within a few days I would learn that not far from where my relatives and I were staying a supermarket had lost its roof from the storm because of a tornado, a rare event in New Jersey, especially one rated a F3. The following year my preschool came within feet of being inundated by a major river flood. The next year was Hurricane Gloria. And in the following years came numerous snowstorms that crescendoed in the winter of 1995-1996 with record seasonal snowfall in metropolitan New York City featuring the legendary Blizzard of ’96.
Growing up in the hill country of northwestern New Jersey, the closest National Weather Service office until 1996 was roughly 25 miles away at Newark International Airport. Besides the distance, Newark Airport was nearly 500 feet lower in elevation and far more urbanized and often got much less snow or no snow at all compared to where I lived in many winter storms. Even though this was the closest primary climate site to my house the climate was different enough that my dad used to like to take snow measurements after a decent snowstorm to keep his own records. He started around the Blizzard of ’78 and would write them on a calendar in our garage. When my own interest in weather kept escalating, I also started talking snow measurements and would compare them with my dad. Sometimes we had significantly different amounts. He used a spot that was fairly consistent and far away from most obstructions and about as level as we had on our property for years. Considering he was never a spotter or trained by a meteorologist he actually did pretty good, looking back at it.
I then started to wonder more how snow was measured in the figures shown on the television news at Central Park or the ones in the newspaper from Newark Airport. There was no internet over 25 years ago and learning about weather was confined to books, magazines, newspapers and some television including The Weather Channel. Finally, in the winter of 1994 during a snowstorm, WCBS in New York sent their weatherman Storm Field to Central Park to do a live broadcast of the National Weather Service measuring the official snow. I watched a meteorologist walk out into the grass and take several readings with a measuring stick and come up with an average. That was the official reading. I was thrilled to finally see how ‘it’ was actually done by a professional.
Two years later the Blizzard of ’96 hit. It remains the single largest snowstorm I ever personally witnessed. I measured 29.9 inches of powdery, wind-driven snow after taking 10 readings in different spots. I felt confident in my reading but I watched the news to see of any nearby towns had reports in of how much snow fell. There was no such luck. A few days later my dad obtained the Star-Ledger newspaper in hard copy from a co-worker from the two days after the storm. Newspaper deliveries were cancelled in most areas from the blizzard so obtaining a print copy from that time frame was not easy as most were not delivered. In it was a map with different towns that had measurements obtained by the National Weather Service. One report about 12 miles west from my house said “Charlotteburg, 27 inches.” That area was similar in terrain and I felt even better about my reading as amounts trended up going east in northern New Jersey due to the storm track. The following day a weekly local newspaper was delivered to our house and I looked through that. In the corner was a small photograph that caught my interest. It was a lady measuring snow – at Charlotteburg – and said she took the readings to send into the National Weather Service. I had no idea the National Weather Service had any sort of connection that close to my house to record weather as I assumed their only reports in my area of New Jersey were at Newark and the airports at Morristown and Teterboro. My interest grew further in what this was about.
Finally, the internet and college came along and I was told about the cooperative weather program by a professor. This was what I had seen in the newspaper after the Blizzard of ’96. I was fascinated further. I looked this up online and there were stations all over that had readings close to where I lived that would give me a better idea of how my past snow measurements compared to what was official. I could even look up totals from storms when I was even younger but did not measure how much snow fell. It was a treasure trove of information.
My interest in climate continued through college. My first visit to a National Weather Service office was in 2000 when I visited the Tallahassee, Florida office to work on a project in college for an internship I had. I was tasked to visit there and obtain copies of their local daily and monthly records. In those days records were still kept in a physical ‘record book’ written by typewriter or in WordPerfect and crossed out with a pen when broken at most offices. I took the records for my project and entered them in an electronic file that could be easily updated when they were tied or broken. Later while wandering at the library I found a section that housed government records and came across dozens of books with old weather data in them called “Climatological Data” that went back to 1914. They were for each state or a group of states. I used these for another research project for my synoptic meteorology class. Climatological Data is a publication still produced today that lists the daily and monthly values collected by cooperative observers across the country.
Eventually after graduating college and working in the private sector, I started with the National Weather Service in January 2007. I’ve been involved directly with the climate and cooperative weather programs each day since. My first job was a Meteorologist Intern at the Hanford, California Weather Forecast Office. I would call observers and collect and quality control their data. The Meteorologist-In-Charge along with the forecasters in the office recognized my interest in these programs was well above average and eventually asked me to assist these programs as an assistant focal point. In March 2008 I was promoted to the Las Vegas, Nevada Weather Forecast Office as a forecaster. I eventually became the Climate Focal Point and when our longtime Observing Program Leader retired took over the cooperative weather program for a year and a half due to ongoing vacancies. This is one of the largest geographic areas covered nationally by the program as it covers parts of four states.
In February 2016 I started my current position at Eastern Region Headquarters on Long Island, New York as the program manager for observations and climate services. This position oversees the nearly 1,400 cooperative weather stations in the region including site visits, equipment, awards and other paperwork in addition to data collection and quality control. As part of this position, I oversee the snow measurements in our region at all climate sites. After having graduated from college in Florida in meteorology I will say this is the most unusual thing I could have ended up doing as part of a job. But in a way much of my interest in my younger days now serves me well and guides me in this area. As part of this job I finally had the chance in 2016 to visit Central Park and Newark Airport and see in person how they measure snow and reflect back on my early interest in weather reports from both stations.
I also get the opportunity to visit some of our sites to present awards to observers. I’ve been privileged and honored to present awards to two cooperative observer sites who played a role in my early interest in weather. One of those was to the retired meteorologist from the National Weather Service who surveyed the tornado that spiked my interest in weather back in 1983 who serves as a cooperative observer at his house in South Jersey. The second was to the observers at the Newark Water District who operate three stations for the National Weather Service in North Jersey including Charlotteburg. It was a surreal experience for me to visit the site that first sparked my interest in the cooperative observing program over two decades earlier. Not all meteorologists get the chance to visit the people and places that inspired them early on in their interest in weather. I feel lucky I’ve had this chance and the opportunity to personally thank these observers for their data and services. I likely wouldn’t be writing this article if it wasn’t for them.
Here, in her own words, are those of Deborah Jones, Program Analyst for the Rip Currents and Beach Hazards Program at NWS Headquarters in Silver Spring, MD.
“In my thirty plus years with the National Weather Service, I have always looked forward to coming to work primarily for two reasons: first, because of the professionalism and passion of my co-workers for saving lives; and second, because in my position as a Program Analyst for the Rip Currents and Beach Hazards Program, I can directly and indirectly contribute to the saving of lives.
Every day of my, to-date, thirty-three year career at NWSQ has proven to be a wonderful place for me to sink my roots and develop my career. It has afforded me the opportunity to pursue my passionate interest in the physical sciences, and share that knowledge with individuals and the public through the development of lifesaving outreach materials. I have been truly blessed to have worked with equally as passionate and skilled colleagues in the development of these materials. As a life career, my tenure at NWS couldn’t have been more perfect.
I remember the day in 2012, when a woman sent me an email sharing her real life testimonial about the “Break the Grip of the Rip!® video, which I helped to develop. While on vacation in Mexico, she had taken the time to watch the NOAA/NWS “Break the Grip of the Rip! ® video. The time she took to watch this video saved her life. While swimming in the Pacific Ocean, she had gotten caught in a strong rip current which dragged her into rough waves that kept slamming her into rocks. In a desperate moment, she recalled the rip current video she had watched an hour earlier showing her how to escape a rip current. She immediately followed those instructions and got herself out of the rip, away from the dangerous waves, and safely back on the dry beach. She was very grateful to NOAA/NWS for making the rip current video that had shown her how to save her life if caught in a rip current.
Just another day in the office at NWSHQ Marine Branch...and yet, I have received countless phone calls and emails from Chambers of Commerce, beach rental properties, agencies, local citizens in small coastal towns throughout the nation and even internationally asking for help with how to raise the awareness of their local citizens and visitors to surf zone hazards, such as rip currents and dangerous waves that are indigenous to their coastal waters. The gratitude for the outreach materials I send has continually compelled me to keep pursuing the creation of lifesaving messages.
Just another day at the beach...well, yes and no. Yes, in that it is our mission here at NWS to primarily save lives; however, to save a life goes beyond the routine duties of an office job. To know that your daily, routine tasks are contributing both directly and indirectly to saving lives and enhancing the economic viability of the nation can only be summed up as the most perfect routine job that has the most extraordinary impact on society.
Here, in her own words, are those of Faith Borden, Meteorologist at the NWS Weather Forecast Office in Nashville, TN.
I have been interested in weather ever since I was a child. I lived in Massachusetts and my family and I were avid snow skiers -- one Christmas Eve, I was skiing and fell and broke my leg. While my bones were healing, it felt like I could feel the weather changing. When I told her, my mom told me I should become a meteorologist. Once I looked the word up in the dictionary, I knew that is what I wanted to do. Up until that point, I didn’t realize meteorology was a science -- all I knew was what I saw on TV. I thought those men on the news just made up the information. This was back when broadcasters were all male, chalkboards were still utilized for weather, and the local TV weather person did not have a degree related to a science field. I didn’t have much in the way of role models, but it didn’t matter. My love and interest in weather only grew from there.
In some ways, being determined to become a meteorologist made going through school easier for me. I knew I would need lots of math and science, so I made sure to take as much of those classes as I could when I got into high school. I didn’t have a guidance counselor to recommend classes, or path tracks like there are today. In some ways, this might have benefitted me, because I was not the strongest student when it came to math. I also struggled with reading, most likely due to having Dyslexia. It seemed I always understood the concept after the test, so my grades were just average.
Fast forward many years, and I was fortunate to graduate from Florida State University with a degree in Meteorology. While in school, I worked for a program that brought real-time POES satellite imagery into the classroom. As part of this program, I got to help develop curriculum for educators and help plan a weeklong intensive training program for teachers. This got me thinking about trying to merge education and meteorology. I was presented with an opportunity to go to grad school for science education, and you can say it has helped me get to where I am today.
In the 20+ years I have worked for the NWS, I have gone from intern to management, and back to a forecaster. Being a WCM in Las Vegas and Charleston was incredibly rewarding. I really enjoyed working with partners, developing exercises, educating/training others, and interacting and mentoring staff. I have been able to use my science education background and what I learned as a classroom teacher in my everyday career. However, balancing a career and raising a family can be challenging. It is not always possible to accommodate a working spouse in the city you end up in. Sometimes, sacrifices have to be made and one person has to travel in order to find employment. In order to support the education challenges of my daughter when she was young (she has learning disabilities and suffers with Dyslexia), and for my husbands’ job opportunities, I left the management position and was fortunate to get an internship -- and then to be converted by the 5/12 Involve Initiative to a forecaster in Nashville. A tough decision at the time, but one that has been well worth it!
An opportunity that came with being a WCM was getting one of the WCM representative positions on the NOAA Education Council. This has been one of the most rewarding opportunities! Being able to merge my love of education and forecasting has been simply amazing. In addition, I have learned so much about NOAA, the other line offices, policies/procedures, and how NOAA operates.
My vast experiences and many twists and turns that my career has taken have given me good insight into challenges that employees (especially women) can face while working for the National Weather Service. It is very difficult to have a work life balance while raising a family. I am passionate about education, excellent customer service, decision support, and diversity. I would not change anything about the career I have had and look forward to what the future may bring.
Kristine Johnson Nelson
Here, in her own words, are those of Kristine Johnson Nelson, currently a Meteorologist with the NWS Operations Center in Silver Spring, MD.
The day was Sunday, March 22, 2009.
I was covering the evening shift for my employee who was at radar school. Redoubt had been restless, but, up to that point, had only released steam and gas with very little ash. As I was finishing my shift, I noticed that the seismic signal got a little more active and persistent which, when combined with the latest Alaska Volcano Observatory statement that said an eruption could happen in hours to days, made me wonder if real eruptions would begin that night. I let the FAA Air Traffic Managers know that an eruption may be imminent, and told them to call me immediately if something happened. I found out later that they had laughed at me as soon as I was out of earshot, but when they called me 90 minutes later, they were all business.
I gave them initial guidance based on the forecast and locations of the flight tracks, and made my way into the office. I told them to keep the easterly tracks open into Anchorage, and shut down the rest. I think we kept planes coming in for at least two hours after the eruption before the volcanic ash was too close for comfort, and I advised them to stop the easterly track into Anchorage. I found out later that Carven Scott, who was Alaska Region’s ESSD Chief at the time, was on that last plane to make it through before the last track was closed. All the other planes had to turn around. Carven was very grateful!
Here, in his own words, are those of Ron Gird, a meteorologist specializing in education and outreach. Ron retired in 2017.
“Ever since I was a 5-year old child growing up in Boston, Massachusetts, I knew I wanted to become a meteorologist. I experienced two major weather events which determined my career in meteorology: a surprise thunderstorm at a family gathering and Hurricane Carol (1954) passing over our community.
I spent the summer of 1966 working for the NWS (then known as the Weather Bureau - ed.)at their northernmost weather stations, Resolute Bay and Alert, Canada, and it was then that I knew I wanted to work for the National Weather Service. I was a Junior at Penn State and applied to work at NWS as a summer student in their arctic weather stations. Spending the summer months with NWS full-time staff at these two stations gave me a real appreciation for the passion and excellence shown by the NWS staff while working in some of the harshest and most challenging environments on Earth. Regardless of the weather conditions, the NWS staff did their daily work with great passion and determination and got the work done correctly and on time, but most of all they really enjoyed their work. Never did I hear NWS staff complain about the challenging weather conditions they faced daily. I was thrilled when the staff invited me to help launch the daily radiosondes -- this was a real thrill. Meal time was a time to let loose and share daily experiences, the good, the bad and the ugly events of the day. In the land of the “midnight sun”, windows in the sleeping area were painted black in order to block out the sun. There was no local social life in these locations, only the staff on station for 24/7 every day for two months. Talking to the same staff every day could get boring at times.
I remember taking a flight to Thule Air Base, Greenland to pick up supplies for the upcoming winter months. Flying in this region had its special moments -- I recall our landing approach to Resolute Bay, sitting in the jump seat between the two pilots and all we could see was dense fog in front of us, but it did not phase the pilots at all. We never saw the runway until seconds before touchdown. The pilots shrugged it off as just another day at the office. I was so happy to be on solid ground once again!
Most memorable moment: the first time I could grow a beard, though no one thought much of it. Most of the staff grew beards. Additional moments to remember were visiting the local Eskimo village and learning how they survived such harsh conditions. Occasionally we would take hikes to tour the countryside and saw herds of muskox roaming freely.
My two months with NWS staff in the arctic region, filled with a lifetime of memories, was my defining moment for joining the NWS. The dedication and passion shown by the NWS staff was my inspiration to join the premier weather organization in the world. I was honored and thankful to work at NWS , enjoying every moment and every assignment in my career. No regrets.