Fascination with weather growing, officials say

02/24/2012 12:00 AM

02/24/2012 9:51 AM

Once upon a time, weather was something everybody talked about, but few people really cared about.

Not anymore.

Interest in the weather is booming, officials say.

It shows in the number of people crowding the roads when severe weather threatens.

It shows in the weather-related programs crowding the cable television schedules.

And – most important – it shows in the number of students crowding into meteorology programs at universities around the country.

“The class sizes have grown immensely,” said Chance Hayes, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service branch in Wichita. “Kids are growing up fascinated by the weather. Their interest and their intuition is really being enhanced by the Weather Channel, which we didn’t have 20 years ago.

“It’s enhanced by TV shows like ‘Storm Chasers,’ which have really given them more of an opportunity to become interested in meteorology and follow through with a passion they’ve had for their whole life.”

Nate Reynolds has seen that in the meteorology class he teaches at Wichita State University.

“There seems to be a real steady stream” of students flocking to his class, he said. “They get fascinated by things they see going on in the atmosphere. It gets in their blood and they can’t get rid of it.”

Reynolds’ class covers the basics of meteorology; including descriptions of weather systems and discussions on what conditions must be in place for severe weather to occur. Nevertheless, he has seen many of his former students go on to earn meteorology degrees around the country.

But Hayes sounds caution for those who think meteorology is defined by what people see on storm chases.

A meteorology degree is hard work, he said, and if you can’t stand math and physics it’s probably not a good fit.

“I think the one thing that really surprises students is the difficulty of the classes that they have to take in order to graduate,” he said.

The talk about the University of Oklahoma is that meteorology was the third most difficult degree to obtain behind aeronautical and electrical engineering.

Storm chasing isn’t even in the curriculum for meteorology, Hayes said.

“That’s basically self-taught,” he said.

High school students seriously interested in meteorology should take all the math, physics and calculus classes they can, he said.

“One of the things they really need to do is look at the job outlook,” Hayes said. “Contact the colleges and talk to them about placement of recent graduates. I think that is crucial today. Right now, it’s very difficult to get a job in the federal government as a meteorologist.”

There aren’t many jobs available to start with, he said, and many of those are being filled by meteorologists being discharged from the military.

“I wonder if many times that’s why we have so many chasers out on the road,” he said. “Have they been able to find a position in their field?”

People who simply want to learn more about the weather without getting a degree in meteorology have a variety of options, Hayes said.

Along with taking a class such as the one Reynolds offers, they can attend storm spotter training talks in the spring.

There’s also Jet Stream, the National Weather Service’s online weather school designed for educators, emergency managers and anyone interested in learning more about the weather.

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