Archive for Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Topeka meteorologist shares trade secrets

March 11, 2009

Editor’s note: Matt Miller is chief meteorologist for KTKA-TV in Topeka.


Matt Miller, KTKA-TV chief meteorologist, monitors national and local weather broadcasts to prepare for a recent on-air shift.

Matt Miller, KTKA-TV chief meteorologist, monitors national and local weather broadcasts to prepare for a recent on-air shift.

I am reminded of what initially sparked my interest to be a meteorologist every time I watch my kids when they wake up to see snow covering the ground. Or watching them look up at a building storm cloud and ask me what the clouds mean.

I remember that feeling of throwing back the curtains in the morning to see whether the forecasted snow really fell overnight. I still do that today. Only now, my stomach is in a knot to know whether or not the snow I predicted actually happened.

Since I was young, I knew that meteorology was the only career for me. I love watching the clouds move and change, growing into larger and larger clouds. I have always loved standing outside as cold fronts blow through and feeling that instantaneous drop in temperature. But figuring out how all that happens took quite a bit of learning and college tuition.

I got a bachelor’s degree in math and then a master’s degree in meteorology. My first TV job wasn’t on air. I was behind the scenes, being trained at one of the nation’s best severe weather TV stations. I was there during the historic tornado outbreak in 1999 when Oklahoma City was hit by an F-5 tornado.

I have been on-air forecasting now for about 10 years, but I’ll never forget that first on-air job in Lubbock, Texas. I was overwhelmed with everything that you have to do to get ready to go on air with the forecast. You work all day preparing the forecast, graphics and presentation ideas, and you get about three minutes to tell everything in a way that people can understand. If you don’t get the forecast right, the whole day was wasted. It’s a lot to know that thousands of people trust you at your word when you “tell the weather.”

Computers are very important to my job. I spend a lot of time looking over computer models looking for similarities and differences in what is being projected. My mind is constantly swirling with what I’ve seen weather systems do in the past. It’s like having a mental Rolodex of all the right and wrong forecasts. Those “lessons learned” keep playing back in my mind as I watch each day’s weather pattern develop.

Eventually, I get to a point where I feel comfortable with what I am forecasting, and I turn to the graphics-making side of the day. Finding a way to take what I believe will happen and turn that into a decent-looking graphic of what to expect is sometimes easier than it sounds.

In a given day, we can have a whole range of expected weather. I don’t want to just say it’s going to be a warm day if only the afternoon will be warm. Perhaps the morning will be cold and gusty winds pick up before the warmer afternoon temperatures are reached. If someone is out at 10 a.m. and has some cold wind chills to deal with, then I want them to know to expect that.

I have another challenge: How do you cram that much information into three minutes and still make the forecast easy to follow?

The days become even more hectic when you throw in the chance of severe weather. Forecasting storms is a whole different ball game. I find myself looking at severe weather parameters on a minute-by-minute basis. Once the storms form, I’m coordinating where we want our meteorologists to be so that we have as many eyes on the storms as possible.

I’m also looking for opportune times to break into the rundown of programming so that we don’t interrupt someone’s television viewing while still monitoring the radar trends. That can be easier said than done. I’ve found that if you can keep people up to date on the weather without interrupting the show they’re trying to watch, then people will take notice without being bothered.

Some days in the hectic pace of a weather day, I long for the days where I could just sit back and watch the storms blow in. But I don’t think I could ever just sit back and relax when it’s storming.

It’s in my blood.


Ken Lassman 8 years, 10 months ago

As someone who used to watch Matt, I must say that he's one of the best. But guess what: I live in the country and don't have cable, and when a big storm is looming to the west, my digital converter box craps out, the picture pixillates, then disappears and is replaced with the useless "Weak Signal" screen saver. It's a good digital converter box with a new antenna, but it still craps out when the weather gets heavy and you need it the most.

My neighbor has satellite TV, the only other alternative for us rural folks where cable isn't an option, and guess what? When heavy rain begins, their signal disappears too.

My weather prediction: more and more rural folks are going to get caught off guard because of the wimpy new digital signals and not-detailed-enough weather radio reports. At least the old analog signals faded gradually and you could see SOMETHING. As we hear all too often these days: "what were they thinking?"

Ken Lassman 8 years, 10 months ago

Weather radio was mentioned above as not specific and timely enough. Recordings broadcast from NWS over SAME weather radios don't indicate the specific location of the developing wall clouds, their directions, minute-to-minute intensity changes that you can see on a good radar image. The bottom line is that these images used to be easily available to any rural dweller using analog television, and now neither the satellite nor the digital converter images can be depended upon when the weather gets heavy enough.

riverdrifter 8 years, 10 months ago

I lose my satellite signal generally for only a short time during severe weather. Make sure your dish is aimed spot-on and you will have less trouble with this. Get Storm Predator 3 software which is a program that taps into the NOAA's NEXRAD radar system to provide near real-time images of storms. It's $49.95 and while yes, geeks love it, it's very useful for anybody who lives in tornado alley.

Ken Lassman 8 years, 10 months ago

Fantastic! Looks like THE answer. Thanks for the great tip--I'll share this with my fellow rural neighbors and friends.

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