Meteorology program tweaks fit employer needs like a glove

Snow falls as several students walk across the UWM campus.

UWM atmospheric sciences associate professor Clark Evans believes that southeastern Wisconsin is beyond the worst of winter. However, he makes no guarantees.

Evans, chair of UWM’s department of atmospheric science and an advisor for Innovative Weather, UWM’s in-house forecasting service, said he learned one thing early in his career: “Never make a forecast you don’t have to! The level of specificity goes way down very quickly the farther out you try to make a forecast.”

What clearly is on the horizon, Evans said, are bright career prospects for graduates of UWM’s atmospheric science degree programs, including two advanced degrees that have been restructured this year to meet employer expectations within the meteorology industry. The native Floridian recently talked about what makes UWM’s atmospheric sciences program effective, described his preferred weather events and offered an armchair analysis of spring weather and the 2018 hurricane season.

Tell us about atmospheric sciences’ new degree programs at the graduate and PhD level.

We’re not necessarily expanding our program offerings in that we had atmospheric science concentrations in math and geosciences already, but rather we’re formalizing our master’s and PhD offerings in atmospheric sciences. We’ve tweaked the requirements of this rebranded degree program to match employers’ expectations and so that students have the skills to succeed no matter what they choose to do post-graduation.

What skills are employers looking for in new meteorologists?

There are terabytes, if not petabytes, of data that meteorologists need to process. To build a model or prepare a forecast, we need people who both understand the physical processes in the atmosphere and have the skillset to mine these large datasets that can tell us what to expect from the weather.

So the average broadcast meteorologist has to reference a complex collection of data just to give us a three-minute weather report?

Clark Evans
Clark Evans

Yes, they’re taking into account three to 10 different computer models plus their own intuition, plus their own observations – and millions of observations from balloons and aircraft and boats, any number of different platforms. Also involved are equations that describe how the atmosphere evolves. Back at the news station, someone gets an hour to put it together in a story that we can all understand.

Often, broadcast meteorologists are now called “station scientists” because they have expertise within the science of meteorology, which is itself a combination of applied physics, applied math and applied chemistry. The kinds of students who succeed in this field have an innate curiosity with how things work. And, there are some mathematical skills that need to be mastered as well. Meteorology is bringing this all together into study of something we all are affected by each and every day.

How has climate change posed challenges to you as a professional and educator in the field?

It’s difficult to relate individual weather events to climate change. You can’t attribute one specific weather event to climate change even though climate change has affected the atmosphere in which those weather conditions evolve.

Attribution science uses historical observations as well as climate model forecasts to determine how much more likely events likehurricanes Harvey or Maria might be in a changing climate, but there is uncertainty in how to communicate this. But, I would say that instead of posing scientific challenges, climate change poses new scientific opportunities, ripe for the next generations of students to make their mark in the world.

 What makes UWM a great place to study meteorology?
The scale and level of involvement that students get as a result of coming to a research university like UWM, with a broad weather forecasting enterprise, is one advantage. Through our Innovative Weatherforecasting service, UWM students help forecast for a wide range of clients and a wide range of factors. They’re helping the Brewers determine if the roof will be open – questions of precipitation, sunshine, temperature. Or, they’re helping clients like the Lake Express Ferry determine if they should send ferries out on a particular day – looking at wind patterns, wave height and more. For power/utility companies, they’re developing forecasts by looking into sunlight, wind, heavy snowfall and ice. Summerfest is a client.

And, students can gain professional experience and get paid all the way through to graduation day. They get paid to work in the world’s greatest lab – the atmosphere – and apply what they study in the classroom to see how it all fits together.

What do UWM atmospheric science grads do with their degrees?

We see about one-third of our alumni working for the National Weather Service and one-third in the private sector (broadcast news, private weather forecasting firms, insurance and power companies). The final one-third go into academics to become professors or research scientists.

Our program is geared to prepare students for all types of careers, and Innovative Weather really is key to this. There is no program like it in the country or the world. We’ve talked to universities from McGill to Valparaiso interested in replicating this model.

Our 11 years of success are starting to build on themselves as our alumni are significant positive contributors to their employers and their bosses want to hire more people from UWM who they know will come in and do a great job. Their success makes my job easier!

You moved here from Florida in 2011. How are you adjusting to the weather here?
It’s been a continual adjustment, with winter in particular. My first winter here included the March of 2012, the hottest March on record here. That did me no favors in terms of understanding what winter and spring actually look like in Wisconsin! The winter we have seen this year and last year – getting out in it and doing activities really help.

The arrival of spring provides hope. And Milwaukee summertime is fantastic. You don’t know how bad summer in the south is until you have a Great Lakes summer. The cool Lake Michigan breezes, the long and warm days makes winter here worth it in a lot of regards.

You were originally trained as an expert on tropical weather. What can we expect from the 2018 hurricane season (June through November), considering last year’s remarkably devastating hurricanes?

On a hopeful note, the past year was by far the most damaging year on record – one-quarter of a trillion dollars of damage from Harvey, Irma, Maria – and it will be very difficult for 2018 to match those levels of damage and devastation. Another way to explain how unusual last year’s hurricane activity was: Before 2017, the last time a major storm directly impacted land in the U.S. was 2005. Last year, we got three storms of that magnitude.

What is your favorite weather event?

The first thunderstorm of spring – you don’t get that electric nature of the atmosphere in many other events. When you get that first one it’s exciting and, though I almost don’t want to say this, it’s electrifying! When it happens, you know that spring is coming.

 

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