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For Mammoth Lakes weatherman, always a climate of learning

A Glendora hailstorm ignited Howard Sheckter's obsession with the elements. For the last three decades, the real estate agent has doubled as the weather sage of the eastern Sierra.

March 31, 2013|By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times
  • Howard Sheckter looks over the latest weather data in his small home office in Mammoth Lakes, where computer screens are filled with isobars — those squiggly concentric circles that encircle high- and low-pressure areas.
Howard Sheckter looks over the latest weather data in his small home office… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. — Howard Sheckter was a painfully shy 10-year-old when he found his calling in a Glendora hailstorm.

As lightning and thunder crackled all around him, he looked up and felt chunks of ice bounce off his cheeks.

The experience ignited an obsession.

An earlier version of this article misspelled Sheckter's name as Schecter.

"My mother's telephone bills were huge because I was calling the weather service 10 times a day," said Sheckter, now 62. "One day, my mother called the operator and asked, 'What number is this?' The operator said, 'It's the weather service. You must have a weatherman in the family.'"

She did, and her son's fascination only grew. Sheckter taught himself meteorology, and through it the withdrawn, nerdy boy found a way to relate to the world — and for the world to relate to him.

For the last three decades, the lanky real estate agent has doubled as the weather sage of the eastern Sierra, with forecasts presented daily on his Mammoth Weather website and on KMMT, KIBS and KRHV radio. His predictions trigger flurries of excitement or anxiety in the Mammoth Mountain ski resort, which draws about 1.3 million skiers a year.

Sheckter is still quite shy. But when he's talking about the weather, as they say around here, you can't shut Howard up. His forecasts can be spellbinding and numbingly complex.

"When there's a storm coming in, Howard gets real excited and tends to go on about oscillations, flows and millibars," Stacy Powell, news director at KMMT in Mammoth Lakes, said with a laugh. "So, I break in and ask the question keeping our listening audience at the edges of their seats: Howard, is it going to snow or not?"

On a recent weekday, Sheckter sat in a small home office, his desk covered with computer screens filled with isobars — those squiggly concentric circles that encircle high- and low-pressure areas.

With animated expressions and rapid-fire explanations, he spoke of meteorological challenges ahead. It's springtime in the eastern Sierra, he explained, and the warmer temperatures, rain and melting snow mean that the ski season is coming to an end in a town where skiing and related operations employ nearly half of the area's 7,500 residents.

Business owners were praying for a few more forecasts of snow in March and April.

"I can feel the pressure," he said, poring over satellite photos, data from weather stations and three decades' worth of personal records. "The business community up here thrives on snow."

Sheckter tries to lighten the technical load in his forecasts with corny jokes, some of them borrowed from Bill Keene, the late Los Angeles traffic and weather reporter who peppered his bulletins with cheesy puns such as: "The temperature is going lower than a snake's vest button."

But trying to suss out the bottom line from his forecasts — is it going to snow or not? — requires patience and concentration.

"The fact is, nobody knows what the hell Howard is talking about most of the time — and I find that totally charming," mused George Shirk, managing editor of Mammoth Times/Mammoth Sierra magazine. "It's endearing to listen to him ramble on about how an isometric low system bulging over Iceland and breaking down over the Azores signals a certain weather pattern just over the horizon."

Sheckter has been studying local weather patterns since he moved to Mammoth Lakes in 1978 and landed a job as a boot fitter in a sporting goods store. The owner of that store nicknamed him "Dr. Howard" because Sheckter spent his lunch hours drawing isobars on a chalkboard.

He's been known as "Dr. Howard" ever since. Today, his forecasts help snowplow companies determine how many days they can expect to remain working, and how much the town should allocate for road maintenance. They are also used to predict when the region's 26 black bears will be coming out of winter hibernation.

"Howard has his finger on the pulse," said Steve Searles, a wildlife specialist who has gained a national reputation as a bear whisperer, someone who can deal with problem bears without killing them. "Around here, if the subject is weather, sure as heck someone will pipe up, 'What does Howard have to say?'"

That was not an easy question to answer on March 20, the first day of spring.

"A high-pressure block near Greenland has been correlated with a drier winter for California," Sheckter mumbled to himself, scanning data streaming over multiple computer screens. "However, this pattern is forecasted to break down over the next week to 10 days, allowing the possibility of storminess to return.

"If the upper wind flow at 10,000 feet has a lot of moisture and moves from the southwest," he added with a smile, "I predict that the storms that arrive around the end of March and early April will produce more precipitation. In fact, I'm banking on it."

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