The Tom Skilling interview

September 30, 2011

First, a tiny plug: tomorrow I am running the Chicago AIDS Foundation 10K and am trying to raise a few bucks for the cause. In case you have a few dollars left over after the WBEZ pledge drive and want to feel like an extra-good person, go here.

Today’s interviewee is WGN-TV’s chief meteorologist and has been with the network for over 30 years.  You can catch him weekdays on WGN Midday News, WGN Evening News and WGN News at Nine. Since 1997, he has masterminded the weather page in the Chicago Tribune and more recently readers can interact with him on his oft-updated Facebook page. His passion for weather led to a daily column and his own weather page in the Chicago Tribune and a weekly series on WGN News, "Ask Tom". Tom is a member of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) and the National Weather Association. He serves on the AMS nominating committee and holds the AMS's Television Seal of Approval and for over 30 years has hosted an annual tornado and severe weather seminars at the Fermi National Accelerator Lab (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois. He may also be the nicest, most enthusiastic person I’ve ever interviewed.

If you weren’t a meteorologist or journalist, what career do you think you’d pursue?
Quite honestly, I can't imagine pursing a career path other than the one I've pursued. The weather's intrigued me my entire life and there's not a day that passes that I don't thank my lucky stars I've been able to pursue a career in a field I've always found endlessly fascinating. I've been lucky to do so in an era in which the advancement of our understanding of the atmosphere's complex workings has exploded. We've come farther in the science of meteorology over the past 50 years than in all the time before that back to Aristotle!

What’s a weather phenomenon the average person might not care that much about that you completely geek out over?
The range of weather phenomena which cause me to geek out is pretty wide. I just shake my head in amazement at times watching a snowstorm or tornadic squall line come together. I've always been struck by the number of atmospheric elements that have to come together in just the right way for them to occur! That our numerical modelers, the geniuses who have devised the means to mathematically simulate these events so we can see them unfolding on supercomputer simulations before they actually come together in real life, is something over which I marvel on a daily basis!

What have been some of the most interesting questions you’ve received from readers in “Ask Tom Why”?
The range and quality of Ask Tom questions my staff and I receive and examine is amazing. It makes you realize there are MANY bright people who watch the weather very thoughtfully and with inquisitive minds. I would image we receive on the order of 100 to 200 great questions weekly and that number hasn't ebbed in the nearly 15 years we've been doing the Chicago Tribune weather page.

Some of the more interesting questions have been inquiries of how tall waves have grown in storms on the planet's oceans, whether global warming is actually occurring (it definitively IS) and questions on how some of weather events our readers have personally observed have come together.

Which are the hardest to answer?
The most difficult questions we receive are the ones which ask about the anticipated weather on dates far in the future.  We get those about upcoming weddings or family trips which are months away. We're not able to accurately forecast the weather at such time ranges, but some think we can and we have to break the bad news that we're unable to look that far into the future.

What’s the craziest weather phenomenon you’ve ever seen with your own eyes?
My WGN crew and I produced a series on the revolution which has been underway in meteorology, a series which included a tornado chase out to Kansas and Oklahoma with veteran extreme weather photographer and storm chase Jim Reed the spring before last. We encountered a multiple vortex tornado while filming in northeast Oklahoma. It chased us down Highway 10 there at 60 mph--and was gaining on us!  It developed suddenly, there was little warning, and it was nearly on top of us when it turn out into a field and expanding to a swirling mass of rain sheets nearly a mile across which ultimately hid the twisters.

To look out the window of our chase vehicle while moving at 60 mph and see a series of tornado vortices (funnels) and rainshafts swirling within a much larger tornado ranks right up there with events I've personally experienced. But, conditions at the height of last February's blizzard were stunning in their own way as was a mammoth ice storm which hit while I was working in Milwaukee in the 1970s. The storm had dropped 5" of rain fell into 29-degree air before 60 mph gusts hit. When the sun emerged the next day, it illuminated what looked like a war zone covered by downed 100 to 150 year old trees sparkling in the sunlight as far as the eye could see. The scene was surreal!  The ice build-up knocked out power to 600,000. The State of Wisconsin worked furiously to get generators our to dairy farmers who relied on electrically driven milking machines.

Another weather phenomenon which has always caught my eye during trips to Alaska  is "hoar frost"--a thick, shimmering layer of frost which adheres to all outdoor surfaces in periods of bitterly cold air.  You don't see that very often in Chicago but it is an amazing thing to witness firsthand--- as are "light pillars"--vertical beams of light which extend vertically into the air from light sources (i.e. street lights, the setting or rising sun, etc.) during periods of bitterly cold sub-zero temperatures.

Either because of breaking news or general craziness in the studio, what’s the most you’ve ever had to scramble on-air?
Oh my, there have been many instances of fast-breaking weather situations in which, in order to get news of serious weather out to viewers quickly--and to do so accurately, we've hit the air in what might be described as a state of "organized chaos". There was a fast-moving squall line which swept our viewing area producing damage from one corner of our viewing area to another back on August 4, 2008. This squall line, known in the weather profession as a "derecho", forced fans to evacuate to the lower level of Wrigley Field. It generated 11,000 cloud to ground lightning strikes in a matter of hours and knocked out power to thousands as it crossed northern Illinois.  We had to scramble to get warnings out on in that storm because the situation literally changed by the minute.

But there have been other instances in which the computer graphics system we rely on to visualize the weather on our programs and on which we work for hours preparing the graphics we show viewers during weather segments, has died moments before we've hit the air.  Having no graphics to illustrate the developing weather situation is a moment which can only be characterized as life at its lowest ebb for a television meteorologist.

People often blame meterologists for either weather they don’t like or weather that was mis-predicted (I’m thinking of a particular day earlier this summer where we were promised extreme heat but it was gusty and cool instead.) Is this type of scapegoating ever appropriate?
People make plans which are thrown off course by erroneous forecasts. The outcry when a forecast fails is understandable and I can tell you that that these are the lowest moments in a forecasters working life. But let's put these in perspective. No forecaster approaches the preparation of a forecast with anything less than 100% accuracy as his or her goal. Forecasts aren't always going to be perfect.  You're dealing with one of the most complex natural systems known and, by any measure, predictions have improved significantly and will continue to improve.

Predictions of our weather at Day 5 have the accuracy of predictions 2 days out in the late 1960s. The mammoth January, 1967 blizzard--to this day, Chicago's worst, literally struck without warning. A storm of that magnitude is not likely to strike without warning again.

Our February blizzard was spotted a week ahead of time and each of the deadly swarms of tornadoes which ravaged places like Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Joplin, Missouri and St. Louis this past spring, were predicted hours in advance--the general severe weather situations which produced them were identified as much as a week in advance. Errors in hurricane tracks have been cut in half 5 days out--more in the short term. Hurricane Irene, for all the criticism of media coverage of the storm, actually tracked as predicted fours days ahead of its devastating romp up the East Coast. It's historic rains were predicted and as was its intensity.

A little perspective is called for in these situations. That a forecast goes badly off course on occasion--and the operative words here are "on occasion"--- is a testament to the atmosphere's complexity and also the trouble we still have will certain atmospheric processes, like the flow of air out of thunderstorms. In general, the smaller the atmospheric event, the harder it is to forecast. The bust you've described in the heat forecast, occurred in meteorological terms, on the scale of about half a state. Heat DID occur but, cool winds out of repetitive t-storms which traveled down Lake Michigan, deterred its advance into the city and Chicago's suburbs (though 90+ temps did make it into western suburbs).

Certain thunderstorms can cause forecasters trouble when, as happened with the failed heat earlier this summer. We had predicted near 100 degree temperatures and unexpectedly persistent thunderstorms, which had been expected to flare farther east then move on early in the day, allowing heat all around us to surge into Chicago. Instead, the storms kept firing over Lake Michigan. This sent cooling outflows into the area off chilly Lake Michigan waters the entire day, blocking the advance of hot air.

Heating DID occur to Chicago's west and--and it actually surged into the area following day. But on the day in question, temperatures held to the low 70s. A forecast like this is a meteorologist's worst nightmare. We devote long days in our effort not to let such a forecast happen. But for all the criticism unleashed in such a situation, forecasts busts of that magnitude are hardly the norm--they actually occur quite rarely.

How many weather records have you seen broken during your career in Chicago, and which was the most exciting or frightening?
I've been witness to many daily temperature records being broken over my 45 years in the weather profession, but some of the really significant records I've witnessed have include the four biggest snowstorms in the city's history (1967, 1979, 1999 and 2011), the record for the deadliest heat wave ever which included the city's highest heat index on record (124-degrees) in the deadly 1995 heat wave, the biggest statewide rainfall ever (the 17" cloudburst in July 1996 centered on Naperville and Aurora), the coldest daily temperatures ever (-26 in 1982 and -27 in winter 1985), the biggest seasonal snow on record (89.6" in the 1978-79 snow season) and the area's worst tornado outbreak on record April 21, 1967.

I used to be terrified of lightning and while I still don’t love it I’ve gotten over it to a certain extent. Does this lack of fear now make me more likely to get struck? Actually, my real question is, are you less likely to get struck by lightning in an urban area than in a rural one?
What a great question. A great number of lightning fatalities have involved men and have occurred in outdoor work or sports situations--in both rural AND urban settings.

Construction workers, farmers, golfers and hikers have suffered a disproportionate number of lightning related injuries over time. But mariners or anyone outdoors can be at risk and, the fact men have been victims of lightning strikes more frequently than women, shouldn't be interpreted as an indication women aren't just as threatened by--and indeed have suffered--- lightning injuries as serious as any involving men.

Regarding the lightning risk in urban vs. rural areas, the fact that its sometimes harder to see storms approaching in urban settings than in the open country surrounding, may offset the fact there may be more tall objects/buildings for lightning to strike in cities compared to rural areas. And it should be noted that it doesn't necessarily follow that because there are tall buildings which seem easier lightning targets, that lightning can't find a way down to street level where it can do harm in cities.

What’s a weather phenomenon you’ve never seen that you’d like to in real life?
I've never witnessed "red sprites" or "blue jets"---colorized lightning discharges which emanate from the tops of towering cumulonimbus clouds (thunderheads).  There's been fascinating research on these done by the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and they have been spotted here in the Lower 48.  I've never seen them and would like to.

Do you use a weather app on your phone or Ipad? Which one?
We have a new WGN Weather Center iPad app which is quite good and getting better.  We've just upgraded the radar imagery and other real time weather data on it.  

What tips do you have for actors or broadcasters who find that they have to perform with puppets?
My advice regarding performing with puppets is go to it and have fun if you're so inclined---but NOT on the weather show! 

Who are some of your favorite broadcasters, local or otherwise, past or present?
I have so many favorites and I know I am going to miss some, but here goes: on television, Harry Volkman, John Coleman, Jack Taylor, John Drury, Rick Rosenthal, Pat Harvey, Len O'Connor, Bill Frink, Denise Cannon, Steve Sanders, Dina Bair, Mark Suppelsa, Micah Materre, Sean Lewis, Bob Jordan, Jackie Bange, Mike Hamernik, Larry Potash, Robin Baumgarten, Jim Ramsey, Lourdes Duarte, John Callaway, Geoffrey Baer, Joel Weisman--and so many others! On the radio side, WGN's Garry Meier, Steve and Johnnie Putnam, Dean Richards and Greg Jarrett.

What’s your favorite parade?
Some favorites because of the energy and enthusiasm of those involved and attending: The Bud Billiken, St. Patrick's Day and Pride Parades. We have MANY great parades in this city!

Between the blizzard, the extreme rainfall, the heatwave and what I perceived to be an extremely unpleasant spring, how does this year compare so far to others when it comes to most eventual weather years in Chicago?
This year has had its weather moments to be sure! The February Blizzard was one of only three here to produce more than 20" of snow. Summer was the area's third wettest in 141 years of weather records!

How does it feel to be the 294th person interviewed for Zulkey.com and now WBEZ?
I am absolutely THRILLED to be the 294th person to be interviewed for Zulkey.com!!!  THANK YOU so much for including me!