This guest post was authored by Dr. John Knox, an associate professor in the Geography Department and the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia.
Why am I a meteorologist? Let me tell you a story that is mine, but others’ as well. A story that, in the end, touches on one of the biggest unsolved questions in higher education today: why, in this era of democratized education via sophisticated technology, we still need humans in the loop as teachers and mentors.
As my students know, I became fascinated by the weather at the ripe old age of four, at an Atlanta Braves exhibition game interrupted and ended by a severe thunderstorm. By the age of five, I was reading books about the weather. But such childhood fascinations can wane; my son became enthralled with trains when he was 2, but he’s not majoring in railroads here at UGA. Particularly if you don’t have an adult mentor in the specialty who ushers you to that next level.
That’s what I had in meteorology, courtesy of the U.S. government, starting when I was 11 years old. In the aftermath of the deadly 1974 Tornado Superoutbreak that killed hundreds and disrupted communications from Alabama to Michigan, the National Weather Service realized that it needed its own way to get the word out about tornado warnings. NOAA Weather Radio (NWR) was born.
As national networks go, NWR was and is kind of a rinky-dink affair. The radio console looked like a glorified 8-track tape affair. Meteorologists at National Weather Service stations would record forecasts, weather summaries, hourly weather observations, and watches and warnings and plug them in. The tapes would play sequentially, over and over again, broadcast to the public on high-frequency stations.
It sounds deadly-dull, doesn’t it? Especially to a generation that has not been raised on the radio.
But for an 11-year-old weather nerd in the days before The Weather Channel, it was heaven. Now, instead of trying to learn about the weather from a three-minute TV weather broadcast, or the very, very occasional special on network TV back then, I had a 24/7/365 mentor on the weather radio that I begged my parents to buy.
And when I say “24/7/365,” that wasn’t not too far off the mark in terms of my NWR listening habits. My parents and brother marveled at my ability to listen for hours, absorbing weather information while doing homework, reading, or just lying around. It was my constant companion growing up.
Even better, the voices on NWR were real meteorologists at our local National Weather Service office. Some read the weather information without inflection. Others sounded almost comically Southern. But there was one, with a resonant tenor voice, who was the best of the best.
This sonorous meteorologist’s name, I learned eventually, was JB Elliott. A native of Hale County, Alabama, JB had, in post-WWII America, worked his way into the Weather Service without a college degree. Over time he became the widely known and beloved resident historian of all things Alabama weather. I eventually listened to NWR all over the country, but there was no one like JB for conveying both the history and the excitement of weather. He would get up out of bed and drive to the Weather Service office in the middle of the night just to do NWR broadcasts during severe weather. I told my family that the weather couldn’t be that severe until I heard JB’s voice on NWR.
Then there was April 4, 1977. An “F5” tornado—the worst—hit just a few miles away from us in Birmingham, killing 22 people. JB went on NWR live—no tape delay—broadcasting the warnings and making sure listeners knew of the gravity of the situation. When JB went live, you knew it wasn’t just bad weather, it was the worst. The damage was so horrendous, photographs of it ended up in training guides for meteorologists. Some of those photographs were taken by JB.
I didn’t meet JB face-to-face until much, much later, in the early 2000s. I had just published the first edition of an introductory college-level meteorology textbook. And in it, I dedicated the book to two meteorologists: the late chair of the meteorology department of my Ph.D. institution, and JB. It might be the first time that a college textbook has been dedicated to a government employee without a college degree. But I think you can tell why I dedicated the book to JB. Without his voice mentoring me in the weather during my childhood, all the way into college, I would likely have lost interest in the weather somewhere along the way.
Now, what does this have to do with higher education? Today we are grappling with the role and scope of online education at universities. Why keep costly humans in the loop at all? JB Elliott and NWR can speak to these questions.
And that’s because, after about 20 years of live meteorologists on NWR, the Weather Service automated the whole shebang in 1997. This was a time-saving, cost-saving move, designed with good intentions to have meteorologists spend more of their time on science and getting warnings out to the public.
And so JB’s tenor was replaced with Igor the Computer’s automated voice. That wasn’t the official name of the voice; the Weather Service tried to personalize things by calling them “Paul,” and “Donna,” and “Tom,” and “Javier.” They’re all Igor to me.
An important point here: the computerized voices ‘read’ the same type of information that the human meteorologists had for decades: hourly weather summaries, weather forecasts, etc. Most of the time, the only difference is that the words are automated vs. coming from a National Weather Service meteorologist.
But that makes all the difference to me. As Will Smith says in I, Robot: “Robots, [gesturing toward his heart], nothing here, just lights and clockwork. Go ahead, you trust ‘em if you want to.” I tried to listen to NWR’s automated broadcasts. I couldn’t. It wasn’t the same, and in fact it felt like a betrayal to me. I spent many thousands of hours listening to NWR in my youth. From the time of automation in 1997 until now, I have listened to NWR for a grand total of 15 minutes. Other “weather nerds” have said the same thing to me.
And I predict that no one, ever, will dedicate a meteorology textbook to Igor the Computer Voice.
Now, back to the ivory tower. I contend that my experience speaks to some of the deepest issues in higher education with regard to automation.
• The mentor/instructor must be present. That often means physically present. But JB was present for me in his voice, and in his getting out of bed and going on-air at 3 am during severe weather. I’ll write another time about the crucial nature of physical presence, but it isn’t absolutely necessary as long as you are truly present in other ways. And even though ‘he’ is always there, Igor the Computer is not in any human sense “present.”
• The mentor/instructor must be passionate. I do get strange looks from meteorologists of my generation when I talk about good ol’ NWR. They had NWR, too, in other parts of the country, but there it was just a radio that set off an alarm during severe weather. They didn’t have JB, and other Birmingham Weather Service meteorologists who invested time, energy and interest. And nobody had JB’s passion for the weather, clearly conveyed via the radio. It was the same kind of information, yes, but it lacked passion.
• In recent years there has been a big push to use technology to create massively open online courses, or MOOCs. Millions can be reached, but comparatively few students finish such courses, and the grades can be even worse than ‘normal’ classes. However, other instructors report good results with online courses on smaller scales. What’s going on here? Presence and passion. As I know from my own teaching experiences, even a large class can feel small and alive if the instructor is willing to be present in his or her students’ lives, passionate about the subject, and if the students are willing to suspend disbelief and pretend that a large science class can be a community, too. If MOOCs can create that environment on the scale of thousands or millions, then they will succeed. JB created it, on-air, for thousands in the Birmingham area. So it can be done outside of a face-to-face relationship. So the MOOC advocates are right in this sense. But it’s not about information dissemination. Most humans have to be motivated, emotionally, to learn. “Lights and clockwork” don’t do that.
Automation does have its advantages. Igor’s voice will drone on as long as the government keeps the transmitters working. JB retired from the Weather Service back in 1989. Recently, due to health, he has had to step back from participating in the Birmingham-based, world-renowned “Weatherbrains” podcasts. People get old, retire, and eventually die.
No one will shed a tear when Igor finally “signs off.” The same will not be said for JB Elliott, not among his thousands of friends in the flesh in Birmingham, and thousands more around the world online. And certainly not among the not-small contingent of those who became weather fanatics and even degreed meteorologists because of him.
And that is what real education is all about.
The hero in John’s story is our very own J.B. Elliott, who recently retired from his day to day forecasting duties, and someone that several of us called mentor. This photograph was from the Birmingham News article when J.B. retired. – Bill Murray
Most of you know I work a pretty long day… up before 5 a.m… not home until around midnight. My passion for weather keeps me going and energized. Unfortunately the long hours prevents me from reading many books, but I was able to finish “Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather” by my friend Mike Smith this month.
For those that love weather, this is one of those books that is hard to put down. Not only is it a history of the severe weather warning system in the United States, it also weaves in the personal story of Mike’s long career.
Most of us in applied meteorology had some event in our childhood that triggered a deep interest in weather. For Mike, it was the Ruskin Heights tornado on May 20, 1957, just south of Kansas City, that was rated EF-5, and would kill 44 people that Monday evening. There were no tornado warnings in 1957; the U.S. Weather Bureau had a fear that that would set off a panic if they even mentioned the immediate threat of a tornado. Mike describes watching news cut-ins during “I Love Lucy” on WDAF as reports came into their newsroom.
The book goes on to tell the story of the first operational tornado forecast had been issued by Air Force Officers E. J. Fawbush and R. C. Miller at Tinker Air Force Base in 1948. These men laid the foundation for the current watch and warning system in use today.
There are many case studies in Mike’s book; one of great interest to me is the mircoburst of August 2, 1985 that downed Delta Flight 191, a regularly scheduled service from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Florida to Los Angeles International Airport, California, by way of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. The crash came on the ground of DFW Airport in Texas; I happened to be the chief meteorologist for the CBS station in Dallas at the time, KDFW-TV, Channel 4. The plane went down during the first few minutes of our 6:00 news that evening, and soon it become pretty clear the big thunderstorm near DFW was responsible for the crash, which would kill 137 people.
Guess I can admit it now, but watching the live news coverage of the crash that night on our competing station, WFAA-TV, had a big impact on me, and inspired me to do long form coverage during tornadoes later in my career when it was allowed by management. Channel 8 did such a good job that night.
Mike also look at the warning process for Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina in deep detail… what went right, and what went wrong. It is especially interesting to read the chapter “Murder by Bureaucracy” concerning Katrina.
I do believe you need to know where you have been to have a better understanding of where you are going. This history of severe weather warnings in this nation is a very important story for all of us, and Mike did a masterful job of telling it. I encourage all in the weather enterprise, and those interested in weather, to get a copy. It is a very good read.
We welcome Meaghan Thomas to the ABC 33/40 Weather Team…
Ashley Brand left the station at the end of April, and we will miss her. Meaghan will step in as weekend meteorologist. She interned at ABC 33/40 a few years ago.
Meaghan was born in Atlanta and grew up in the suburb of Johns Creek. Her passion for broadcasting and meteorology became apparent in middle school and from that she has never deviated.
She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Broadcast News and Geography from the University of Alabama. As an undergraduate Meaghan became a member of the American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association. She also became a certified storm spotter. Meaghan experienced, first hand, the devastating tornado outbreak on April 27, 2011. This experience further reinforced her desire to learn more about what causes such atmospheric events.
Meaghan is completing her Master’s in Broadcast Meteorology from Mississippi State University. While attending MSU, she was a teaching assistant in the Department of Communications. She also accompanied a group of storm chasers into the Great Plains where she personally experienced the EF-3 El-Reno, Oklahoma tornado, EF-4 Bennington, Kansas tornado, and 5.25 inch hail. Her pictures of the phenomenon were featured on CNN, Good Morning America and ABC Nightly News.
That training paid off when Meaghan started work as a meteorologist at WCBI, the CBS affiliate, in Columbus, MS. She gained valuable experience tracking severe weather through eastern Mississippi and into western Alabama. Her next goal is to earn the prestigious CBM and NWA seal of approval.
Meaghan’s personal time is spent enjoying family, good food, travel, exercise, and cheering on the Alabama Crimson Tide. You can follow her on Twitter here….
Yesterday, Brian posted about the Birmingham NOAA Weather Radio Transmitter being off the air. Today we received an update from Jim Stefkovich, the Meteorologist in Charge at the National Weather Service in Birmingham. Jim believes it is important for everyone to know about the situation, and has asked all media partners spread the word on the issue. Here is the latest information on this situation.
Initial issues with the Birmingham NOAA Weather Radio (NWR) transmitter occurred during the late afternoon on Saturday 4/19. Technicians determined on 4/20 that equipment on the tower, as well as cable from the transmitter to the antenna needed to be replaced. There are limited personnel available to make repairs and certified to make the approximate 450 foot climb on the antenna. We have received estimates that the transmitter may not be repaired until on or around 5/3.
They have provided a link to allow people the opportunity to switch transmitter sites and determine if they can in fact pick up broadcasts from surrounding transmitters. Map of nearby transmitters.
The last NWR weekly test occurred on 4/19. For some NWR receivers, if a weekly test does not occur within 10 days, the receiver will begin to beep constantly. This means that if not repaired by 4/29-30, these receivers will begin to beep until a weekly test is performed. It is their intention to perform a weekly test immediately if the outage lasts this long.
My first J.B. Elliott experience was probably in 1971. The National Weather Service in Birmingham had a recorded telephone line for the forecast. It was updated a few times a day by the meteorological technicians and forecasters that worked there at the office at 11 West Oxmoor Road in Homewood. When there was active weather, they could shorten the recording length and provide more frequent updates. One voice on the line could be counted upon to deliver excellent severe weather updates and even tropical advisory information. That was the trusted voice of J.B. Elliott.
As a nine year old that year, I had discovered tracking hurricanes and was using my trusty World Book Atlas to plot tropical cyclone positions from the advisories. The first storm I ever tracked was Edith that September. The major hurricane came together over the southern Caribbean and reached peak intensity on September 9th before it made landfall in Nicaragua. The storm weakened considerably and meandered northwestward, eventually crossed the Yucatan Peninsula and entered the southwestern Gulf of Mexico. It moved into Mexico then tracked slowly north northeastward along the coast. On the 15th, it was picked up by an approaching trough and shunted rapidly northeastward toward the Louisiana coast. It made landfall 30 miles east of Cameron as a minimal hurricane on the morning of the 16th.
As a fourth grader at McElwain Elementary, I begged to stay home on Thursday the 16th so that I could track the storm. It may have been the first hurricane weather day in history for a Birmingham school student. I followed the hourly observations by listening to the ATIS from the Birmingham Airport on an old Patrolman 6 VHF/UHF radio. The winds only gusted to 31 mph at BHM, but I recorded the reports diligently like it was a category five hurricane. 1.94 inches of rain fell at the Airport.
By the next year though, I was addicted to the reports on the recorded line. There was no Weather Channel, no internet, no weather radio, and barely any television weather. And you knew that it was going to be a good weather information day when you heard that reassuring voice.
But I didn’t know who it belonged to. It would be 1976 before I would meet the man behind the voice at the NWS. And in November of that year, NOAA Weather Radio came to Birmingham. Then it was on! J.B. quickly established himself as the trusted voice for Central Alabama weather on the new KIH-54 station.
Anytime there was active weather, you hoped J.B. was working. You knew then that you were in good hands for the next 8 hours or so. That never was truer than on April 4, 1977. I was the only kid at Huffman High School who carried a NOAA Weather Radio to school. I knew that we had trouble when a tornado warning was issued shortly before 3 p.m., which was dismissal time. I went up to the teacher and told her that a warning had been issued and that we needed to let someone know so that we could sound the tornado drill bell. She told me to sit down.
The rear flank downdraft struck with a fury even as the dismissal bell sounded. I hit the hallway running, but could not open the glass doors. The tornado bells sounded immediately afterwards and we were all hurried downstairs. The storm passed well to the north of us and we were allowed to leave. J.B. was broadcasting live on KIH-54, the first of several times that would happen under his watch.
J.B. would bolster his image as a weather legend with his updates that afternoon and over the next twelve years. Any event that warranted reports on the “Alabama Weather Situation” immediately got your attention. He would continue to be the voice of NOAA Weatheradio for everyone in Central Alabama until his retirement in 1989. The article that ran in The Birmingham News when he retired is shown here.
But that would not be the end of his storied career. He has been creating content for The Weather Company (now known as The Weather Factory) ever since. And while he has officially retired from his day to day forecasting duties, he still is an owner in the company. He has his logon for AlabamaWx and he promises you will see occasional stories under his byline in coming days. He will also make an appearance on WeatherBrains from time.
Sally and I went out to J.B. and Judy’s house last Thursday to take them a set of birthday cupcakes. J.B. was funny and said thank you to everyone for his birthday wishes. M&M were in rare form as well.
Thank you J.B. for your years of service to the people of Alabama, your mentoring and your friendship. You are an Alabama Weather Legend.
It is my sad duty to let you know that “the world’s greatest weatherman”… J.B. Elliott… is officially retiring this week from weather work.
J.B. is my mentor, and the main reason I am a professional meteorologist today. He is a trusted friend that never seems to have a bad day.
His roots are in rural Hale County, at Havanna Junction, south of Moundville. J.B. was born April 17, 1932, and it seems like he loved weather from the day he was born. The passion has never faded, and his enthusiasm for the science of meteorology spreads like wildfire.
He worked for the National Weather Service as a forecaster for 32 years… and all of that time was spent at the office here in Birmingham. He is has lived and worked through so much weather history… he was the one that issued most of the tornado warnings during the “SuperOutbreak” of tornadoes April 3-4, 1974.
Upon his retirement from the NWS, we had a deal for him waiting to join “The Weather Company”… now known as “The Weather Factory”. That is our private business that provides support for ABC 33/40; J.B. is widely known for his daily afternoon forecast package here on the blog. Not only is he known for detailed, accurate forecasts, he is also loved because of the personal stories he shares. For many years, the adventures of his dog “Little Miss Molly” warmed many hearts.
I cherish all the times we rode together to school visits over the years on the “roads less traveled”.
J.B. has been the long time severe weather voice for local radio stations WBHK (Kiss-FM), WBHJ, and WAGG.
J.B.’s wife Judy had a serious fall a few weeks ago, and both Judy and J.B. have decided it is the time to retire. But, even in retirement, we will always check in with J.B. anytime we have a big weather threat since he is the voice of experience and logic around here.
I hope J.B. and Judy enjoy the retirement years; they are active members of Huffman Baptist Church and live in Trussville. It has been my honor to work alongside the “legend” for all these years, and I will always be appreciative of his support and encouragement.
A great opportunity for all you weather enthusiast out there. This weekend, April 4-5, 2014 is the 12th Annual Southeast Severe Storms Symposium on the beautiful campus of Mississippi State University. This is a terrific, student-led conference hosted by the East Mississippi Chapter of the NWA/AMS. It is a real treat if you have the time to take the short drive out U.S. Highway 82 to wonderful Starkville, Mississippi. There are some great speakers this year, including our own Weather Historian, Bill Murray. Bill will be discussing The Deadliest Tornado Outbreak in Alabama history which occurred on March 21-22, 1932. Click on the image below get all the information about the Symposium or check out the Chapter’s Website.
Come one, come all to the first meeting of 2014 for the Central Alabama Chapter of the National Weather Association.
The meeting will be held Monday night, March 17th, 2014 from 7-8:15 PM, at the Homewood Suites in the Riverchase community of Hoover.
The Central Alabama Chapter of the National Weather Association is dedicated to promoting the important place of weather in every aspect of our lives. The Chapter brings together operational forecasters, broadcasters, government meteorologists, academicians, emergency managers and weather enthusiasts to network and learn about operational meteorology.
The goal of the Central Alabama National Weather Association Chapter is to increase weather awareness and education, and to make everyone a Weather Ready Ambassador. Members have plenty of opportunities to interface, network and work together in a relaxed setting, which will advance the understanding of each other’s roles and foster personal relationships that will come in handy when skies turn threatening. There are abundant opportunities to get involved in leadership through committees and officer positions.
The meeting Monday night will have guest speakers Kevin Laws from NWS Birmingham and Bob Dreisewerd from Baron Services Inc. They will be talking radar. We will learn more about the existing ways radar data is used and interpreted, some new more rapid scan strategies that will be used this year, and where the future of the technology is headed. It will certainly be an interesting topic and you will not want to miss out on this opportunity.
After an incredible 2013, the Chapter is looking forward to a better 2014. The main reason we can do this is because Baron Services Inc., from Huntsville, Alabama has signed on to be a corporate sponsor for the Chapter for 2014. This will allow us to achieve bigger and better goals for the year ahead.
Becoming a member of the Chapter is a terrific opportunity. What makes this so incredible is because the local dues are just $25. That covers the entire year and guarantees access to all Chapter events during 2014. Dues can be paid online with credit card or PayPal ($1.06 processing fee), or by check or cash in person at a meeting or by mail.
Please visit the Chapter Website, join the chapter and RSVP for the meeting Monday night. Hope to see you there!