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Meteorologists Often Talk Up a Storm at Annual Gathering

The meeting, held this year in San Diego, follows a tradition of coinciding with bad weather.

January 10, 2005|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Perhaps it is fitting that this town known for clear skies and warm temperatures has had days of steady showers. All the better to greet the 2,200 people who came to attend the annual conference of the American Meteorological Society.

"Everyone is turning to us now," said Ronald D. McPherson, executive director emeritus of the group. "We're always going to be careful about issuing forecasts. You do your best, but occasionally, it's going to be wrong."

Amid some of the most severe storms in California in recent years, top meteorologists, oceanographers, researchers, students and teachers descended Sunday to begin five days of seminars, talks and meetings.

For the curious -- both amateur and expert -- the conference launched with WeatherFest, which lured an audience with such questions as, "Have you ever wanted to know how the atmosphere works and what drives weather patterns across the country from West to East?" and "Do you want to meet a storm chaser that races across the Midwestern Plains in search of tornadoes?"

But a passion for the weather can be hard for the uncommitted to understand.

Roxanne Hersh stood and watched as her 16-year-old son, Justin, sat enthralled by his conversation with a meteorologist at an exhibition booth.

"I have no idea why he's so interested in the weather," she said.

"It's a birth defect," answered Elliot Abrams, a meteorologist.

If anyone can speak with authority about the curious passion some devote to the "atmospheric sciences," it's Abrams, a 37-year veteran for the private forecasting service AccuWeather.

He was born during a thunderstorm. By second grade, he was a weatherman in a class play. And by fifth grade, he would stand outside his house and report forecasts to his neighbors, not always correctly.

"I didn't realize what a geek I was at the time," said Abrams, who wore a navy blue tie with a lightning bolt print.

On the airplane hangar-sized floor of the San Diego Convention Center, where the 85th annual meeting was being held, Abrams was safe in the knowledge he was among peers paid to make predictions that don't always turn out to be true. Such is the life of a weatherman, or woman.

"You can't have a stubborn personality to do this," said Abrams, 57. "One of the exciting things is that every day is a new experience."

Not even the best minds on hand could have forecast such rainy weather over the conference's five days of meetings and talks when the site was chosen months earlier. On the other hand, the annual event has an uncanny tradition of inviting sour weather.

The 1986 conference in Atlanta featured a snowstorm; the 1987 meeting in San Antonio was mired by an ice storm; another conference in Atlanta in 1991 ended a day early because of a massive East Coast blizzard; the 1993 meeting in Anaheim brought mudslides, and rain fell each day during the 2003 event in Long Beach.

"When you bring meteorologists together, you want this kind of weather," said American Meteorological Society spokeswoman Stephanie Kenitzer.

With many Californians avidly tracking storms this week, meteorologists noted that it has only been in the last three decades that people have come to rely on daily weather forecasts. Because accurate weather warnings can mean the difference between lives saved or lost, meteorologists said, there is the constant push to improve.

Tornado expert Joseph T. Schaffer of the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said he now expects his staff to be able to predict a twister up to two hours before one touches ground.

"That would be like a hitter batting .300," he said of the skill level such predictions require. "It's not easy. Day by day, we're pitting our brains against Mother Nature, and more often than not, she's smarter than you. You need to have enough of an ego to think you can predict these things. You need intestinal fortitude and character to admit you blew it when you blew it."

Some of the weather community's top names walked the floor, approached by admirers and peers to talk business. Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, was stopped in his tracks by a National Weather Service official who commiserated about last year's devastating hurricane season in Florida.

"Our bottom line is the reduction of loss of life," said Mayfield, who acknowledges that his responsibility feels personal. Mayfield knows the time and location of death for the 61 people who perished directly as a result of hurricanes in the U.S. last year. He even viewed some of the victims at the coroner's office.

For many meteorologists, their career is more a calling than a job.

Addison Sears-Collins, 21, fit the profile of many meteorologists on hand -- awed at an early age by Mother Nature. In his case, it was a hurricane that just missed his grandmother's house in Savannah, Ga. Now he is a senior at the University of Virginia who hopes to parlay his meteorological studies into a job in the business.

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