Sunny outlook for young weather forecaster

11/28/2013 1:04 PM

11/28/2013 1:19 PM

It started with maps, says Shelly Sanders.

Lots and lots of maps, drawn with colored pencils, crayons or markers. Maps of the world. Maps of the United States. Maps of Kansas showing all 105 counties.

Whenever her little boy, Peyton, would draw a picture, she says, chances were it would be a map.

Around that time, when Peyton Sanders was about 4, his mother took him and his older sister to Exploration Place, where they saw a live weather lab and met local meteorologist Mark Bogner. Peyton saw lots of maps there, marked with wind streams and cold fronts and high- and low-pressure systems.

“I was hooked,” Peyton recalls. “It’s one of my first vivid memories.”

Now 15 and a sophomore at Maize South High School, Peyton Sanders may be the state’s youngest practicing weather man.

He is co-owner and lead forecaster for Cirrus Weather – cirruswx.net – which provides online forecasts and other weather-related information for Kansas and elsewhere. From his basement-turned-weather-lab at home or the broadcast studio at Maize South, Peyton builds and records daily and long-term weather forecasts that are broadcast with the school’s morning announcements.

“I’ve always been fascinated by just the power of the weather,” he said. “How it’s always changing, especially here in Kansas. I like the science behind it, but the thing I’m really interested in is broadcasting.”

Primarily self-taught, Peyton already is a natural in front of the green screen, delivering forecasts comparable to professional meteorologists.

“We’ll be looking at a cold and windy Tuesday across the state and even colder as we head on into Wednesday,” he said this week, wearing a Hollister polo and smoothly pointing toward the national radar picture.

“Now, this system is going to continue to push off to the east through the holiday break,” he said. “And that could be leading to some travel problems if you’re going along the East Coast.”

Blake Smith, a meteorologist for KAKE, Ch. 10, teaches meteorology as part of a Career Pathways program at Maize South, through which students can explore careers or earn college credits or certification. Sixty-six students have taken the semester-long class since it started last year.

Peyton, who is taking the class this fall, is “off the charts,” Smith said.

“Peyton just has a passion for weather. It’s such a competitive business, and you have to have that passion and that drive.”

Peyton’s mother, Shelly, a second-grade teacher, said the passion started early. While other kids were playing video games, Peyton scanned weather websites to study weather terminology and forecasting models. As a seventh-grader, he took first place at the state Science Olympiad in the meteorology division.

Before long, he was dragging card tables into the family’s basement and buying or refurbishing old computers to add to his collection. He finances his hobby with money he makes refereeing youth-league soccer matches.

But when Peyton asked to paint one of the basement walls as a green screen for his forecasts, his mother said no.

“That hideous green? No way. I did not want that on my walls, because once that’s on there, it’s not coming off,” Shelly Sanders said, laughing.

Eventually Peyton ordered a sheet of green-screen material online, which he draped along one wall. The family cat, Tiger, climbed it a few times before Shelly helped trim and fasten the material more securely to the wall.

“I told him he can keep it there as long as the cat stays off of it,” Shelly Sanders said.

At Maize South, Peyton is known as “the weather guy,” he said. Classmates often ask him what the high temperature will be or whether it’s likely to rain.

“I don’t mind it too much,” he said. “It’s like I’m already doing what I want to be doing.”

After high school, he plans to major in meteorology and possibly pursue a master’s degree at the University of Oklahoma, known for its severe weather forecasting program. After that, he would like to work for a television station or weather service somewhere in Kansas, he said.

“I like Kansas. This is where the action is, weather-wise,” Peyton said. “I wouldn’t want to be in southern California, where it’s always sunny and 70 degrees.”

Shelly Sanders said she’s proud of her son and marvels that he seems to have discovered his passion so early in life. But she gives him a hard time when his forecasts are off.

“Once we were driving to the dentist, and it was sleeting outside, and he kept saying, ‘No, Mom, that’s not sleet,’ ” she said. Peyton’s forecast that day hadn’t predicted precipitation.

“Then the UPS delivery guy comes into the dentist’s office and says, ‘Can you believe that sleet? If I got paid as much as those weather guys to get stuff wrong ’ Peyton and I just laughed about that.”

Smith, the KAKE meteorologist and high school teacher, said Peyton’s passion for weather already is inspiring to watch, and he expects to see him on the air someday.

“He’s already good,” Smith said. “He knows his stuff.”

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