This is the first in a series of conversations with professionals within the field of meteorology. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with James Morrow, a recent hire by the National Weather Service and a fellow Virginia Tech graduate. I found his insight to be fascinating, and I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did!
Nick Gilmore: First of all, James I want to thank you for offering your time to answer a few questions! I couldn’t think of anyone better to start this series off with than you. We Hokies have to stick together!
James Morrow: For sure! Hokies for life! More than happy to be your “guinea pig!” Big fan of your new blog, so the honor is all mine really.
NG: Absolutely and much appreciated my friend! Hey someone had to do it, and I am so glad you volunteered! To start things off, James could you just tell us a little bit about yourself and your current position within the field today?
JM: Sure Nick! I apologize if I get a little long-winded! Born and raised right here in the great state of VA! Grew up the oldest of 4 children, to a set of parents who worked within the education field. Attended Virginia Tech where I received a B.S. in Meteorology, B.A. in Geography, and a minor in Geosciences. As an undergraduate student, I had the tremendous opportunity to storm chase with the Hokie Storm Chasers (2012 – Participant; 2014- Leader), worked as an intern at: WDBJ-7 Roanoke, The National Weather Service in Blacksburg, VA., and within the NASA Develop program. I also had the tremendous opportunity to serve as President of the award-winning Blue Ridge Chapter of the AMS/NWA while also founding a student media organization named “Hokie(™) Weather Watch.” Today, I am currently a man of two hats. First, I am working on my M.S. degree in Geography at Virginia Tech studying tornado occurrences in our local sub-region. Secondly, and most importantly, I am a full-time meteorologist at the National Weather Service Office in Blacksburg, VA. A career dream of mine since I found my love of weather!
NG: That’s a killer resume there for sure. I am truly honored to have been a part of several of the initiatives you started up! Knowing you personally, I witnessed how excited you were about getting that position with the National Weather Service. Considering how hard that is to accomplish today, it truly speaks to the benefits of our program at Virginia Tech and to you as an individual. We couldn’t be more proud! Could you tell us about the process one has to go through to get into the NWS today? I know your path was a little different from the usual one people typically go through, so feel free to share your personal path to the NWS as well.
JM: As you mentioned, it is getting increasingly harder to land a spot within the National Weather Service today due to a variety of reasons; and yes, my story is a bit unique. Knowing that base level positions within the NWS were currently hard to come by, I decided to continue on in pursuit of a master’s degree. About a semester into the process, they announced the establishment of “Pathways Positions” in the NWS, along with a few Meteorological Intern positions late in the fall of 2014, including two spots right here in Blacksburg. Knowing that I couldn’t afford to waste any chances of getting into the organization, I jumped on both opportunities, thinking the later was a long shot. To my surprise, I got a call from the local office a few weeks later asking for an interview, which ended up being pretty extensive. Honestly, I was pretty pessimistic throughout the entire process, knowing just how difficult it would be to get in, but I was proven wrong just after Christmas of last year when I got the offer! Even though I wasn’t completely done with my M.S. degree I knew this could be one of my only chances in, so I took it and I am about 5 months into the gig today!
NG: And I think you would probably say that it is one of the best decisions you’ve ever made! Now that you’ve made it there, tell us what a “typical” day in the office is like?
JM: It depends on the weather! There is a fair amount of daily duties that need to be taken care of, but then the rest depends on how active of a weather pattern we are witnessing at the time. Quiet days allow us to work on research, training, and other office programs, while active weather days require more of our attention. Either way, my favorite part of my shift is the launching of weather balloons, which occur twice a day at our site.
NG: I have never gotten to do a balloon launch, but it is definitely on my bucket list! You and I have an understanding of just what goes into a NWS forecast, but for those who maybe don’t know, could you talk a little about the “ingredients” that must come together (how the readings from those balloon launches come into play) to provide a forecast and maybe some challenges of forecasting in this particular area?
JM: Whew…There is just so much! First off, a forecaster needs to have a good understanding of the area in which he is forecasting both physically and historically. Knowing the river valleys that tend to fog in the most, or those highest peaks that may see a few more inches of snowfall is very important. Then just having the general knowledge of what is going on in the atmosphere. Luckily, our weather balloon launches give us a first-hand account of the conditions directly above our area. Combining all of this with an understanding of the computer models and their local biases, we are able to put together our best forecast for the area. One of the hardest things to forecast in our region is fog. Not necessarily just “when” it will occur, but “where.” Snowfall timing and amounts are always fun too.
NG: There are just so many things that go into a forecast, especially those tricky things that you mentioned. I can only imagine what that is like from your viewpoint. Switching gears a little bit, there was a bill recently introduced to the Senate proposing the centralization of the NWS into 6 regional forecast offices; this article from the Capital Weather Gang does a pretty good job of describing the proposed changes:http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/capital-weather-gang/wp/2015/06/16/senate-bill-proposes-centralizing-weather-service-forecasting-into-6-regional-offices/As a relatively new employee of the National Weather Service, I was just curious to see what you think of these proposed ideas.
JM: I do my best not to get into the politics of everything really. The way I look at it, if I do the best that I can do at all times, my work will show for itself, and justify the need.
NG: That is probably the best mentality to have about it. I know that you will definitely bring to the table what the NWS will need in the coming future. Taking into consideration your experiences over the past few months, what do you believe the future of the NWS will look like? If you could change one thing about the current set-up, what would it be and why?
JM: I believe the need and importance of a centralized National Weather Service will remain far into the future. With technological advances, our role will continually shift through time, however, I believe our mission to “provide weather, water, and climate data, forecasts and warnings for the protection of life and property and enhancement of the national economy” will hold true.
NG: I couldn’t agree more with you on that one. I’m not sure people realize how beneficial the NWS is to the safety and protection of the general populace. Speaking of the general public, could you maybe talk some about how the NWS interacts with the public? If someone has a question about the weather in their area, or wanted to potentially help the NWS with storm reports, how would they be able to connect?
JM: Thanks to some of the recent technological advances, there are several ways the public can interact with us, including: Our website, e-mail, social media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube…etc), and even the old-fashioned phone call! Our office is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year, and the public has access to across multiple platforms at all times.
NG: That is some very helpful information! Thanks for sharing! Let’s talk a little bit about your current research. Tell us a little bit about the work you are doing with tornado genesis in this sub-area. If it’s not already being utilized, do you think your research could be used by the NWS or another government agency in the future to potentially help with warning times and safety procedures for tornadic situations in this area?
JM: As you mentioned, my master’s thesis work is looking into past tornadoes in the Central Appalachian sub-region, in the hopes of gaining an understanding of underlying trends and patterns that occur. It’s a well-known fact that tornado occurrences in our region are much less frequent than in other areas of the country, but they do occur, and understanding areas that are impacted by these events more than others within our sub-region could be important in both disaster preparedness and potentially forecasting. So in the long run, local emergency managers, government personnel, and even forecasters could benefit from this research.
NG: Being a local of this area, I can’t tell you how many times I have heard “Tornadoes don’t happen in the mountains.” Even though we have seen tornadoes touch down locally in recent years, I think many people still hold on to this faulty belief. Do you think your research could help the general public of this area to understand that tornadoes are certainly possible here and a threat? Have you personally run into any instances of this belief during your time at the NWS and, if so, how did you (or your fellow NWS employees) handle it?
JM: That’s a tough call really. It all depends on a person’s interpretation of my results. I am not trying to convince people that our area is in a great risk of tornadoes. In reality, history does tell us that tornadoes don’t occur here in Southwest Virginia AS OFTEN as some surrounding areas, but they certainly can occur, and will in the future. I just hope that my results aid in the preparation and forecasting of future events. Being prepared for potential natural disasters is very important. If we never get a chance to use those preparations, then count ourselves likely!
NG: I certainly hope your research will be able to accomplish that as well. Let’s talk a little bit about one of the programs you started at Virginia Tech. As I mentioned above, I was really honored to be a part of a few of the organizations you started up at Tech, but especially Hokie(™) Weather Watch. Would you say that your experience in broadcast meteorology and the start-up of that conglomerate has been beneficial to you at the NWS?
JM: Certainly! Being able to better communicate weather information to the general public is much harder than most people realize. Having additional experience translating the scientific jargon into something an average person would understand has prepared me well in this industry. After all, the ability to communicate effectively to your user is key in most work environments.
NG: I couldn’t agree more. One of my biggest passions in this field is making sure the general public knows what we are talking about. Effective communication skills will always be key. Well James, I’ll end with just one more question. Considering where you are now, what would you say to the aspiring meteorologist, of any age, who is trying to get into this field?
JM: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes! Learn from them and never take criticism personally. Grow from it!
NG: Very well said. James, I just want to say thank you again very much for your time! I wish you the best at the NWS and with your research! Try not to work yourself too hard!
JM: HAHA. Thanks for having me Nick! I look forward to seeing you continue along your trek through the meteorology industry!
NG: The honor is all mine and I truly appreciate your kind words!
If you have someone in mind who you would like interviewed, get in touch with me through the About page and I will see what I can do!
(Note: All views expressed within this interview are that of James Morrow and not that of his employer, the National Weather Service)