This story by Kelly Freund originally appeared in the Winter 2017 Issue of Georgia Tech's Alumni Magazine.
--SPECIAL WEATHER STATEMENT--
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE
PEACHTREE CITY GA
WHAT: A slow moving warm front will pull through the Georgia Tech campus as new students gather for FASET orientation near the student center. Expect this front to affect two students in particular: Laura Griffith and James Belanger. As the group of future Ramblin’ Wrecks gather around large signs depicting their major—with some 300 incoming freshmen milling about all the engineering fields—Laura will find just two other students under the Earth and Atmospheric Sciences banner. The small group will make the 10-minute walk to the department building and no one will say anything. Laura will think this is weird. The boy walking next to her seems like the less odd of the two students with her. So she will say, “Hi, I’m Laura.” “Hi, I’m James.”
PRECAUTIONARY ACTIONS: This is the beginning of something special. But James is a very risk-averse guy.
This could take a while.
Laura Belanger likes to tease her husband, James, that his first love was Weather Channel meteorologist Jeanetta Jones. Instead of watching cartoons as a kid, he would sit and watch the Weather Channel for hours. But according to James, it was not because of Jeanetta. Since the age of four, James knew he wanted to be a meteorologist. He spent the first few years of his life in North Carolina before moving to Georgia, and he remembers staying up late to watch the old TV version of radar, looking for snow.
“During elementary school, when we had our closed-circuit television broadcast, I was the TV weather guy,” James says. “It was kind of a no-brainer that I wanted to go to a university where I could become a meteorologist.”
As for Laura, she wanted to be a dentist. But that was short-lived. In the eighth grade, she was given a homework assignment to talk to someone with an occupation that she might like to have someday. Through acquaintances, she set up an interview at the National Weather Service in her hometown of Peachtree City, Ga. What was supposed to be a 15-minute conversation lasted an hour and a half because she wouldn’t stop asking questions. She walked out of the meeting with an offer for a volunteer position.
Both Laura and James turned to Georgia Tech to jumpstart their careers in meteorology. The closeness to their hometowns played a factor, but the big draw was the prestige of the school and the holistic approach of Tech’s earth and atmospheric sciences program. The curriculum didn’t just focus on one facet, but provided them with a breadth of knowledge in the field. While he was in class, James might have resented sitting through lectures on earthquakes and atmospheric chemistry when all he wanted to learn about was severe thunderstorms and hurricanes. But graduates of Tech’s earth and
atmospheric sciences program leave with a fundamental knowledge of earth science—as well as a passion to solve the world’s problems.
Laura and James are no exception. While most people think of meteorologists as the people who deliver the local daily weather forecast on TV, the couple works largely behind the scenes, analyzing weather data and its impacts, getting us all prepared for weather’s next big event.
--SPECIAL WEATHER STATEMENT--
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE
PEACHTREE CITY GA
WHAT: That same slow-moving warm front from 2003. Over the next few years, Laura and James will have a lot of interactions, from classes to study groups. But they will remain “just friends” for a long time. Then, their junior year, they will both become part of a study group for a particularly difficult class, and James (one of the only people Laura knows who will graduate from Tech with straight As) will teach everyone the material. It turns out he is only coming to the study group because Laura is there.
IMPACTS: This has gone on long enough. A friend will finally convince James to ask Laura out—which he will do over AOL Instant Messenger. She will respond with, “I have to check my work schedule.” James will think she’s going to say she has to wash her hair that night.
THE WEATHER FRONT
Laura has been a part of the National Weather Service longer than she hasn’t. For the past 17 years, she’s worked her way from volunteer to intern to meteorologist.
There are 122 National Weather Service offices scattered across the country. Laura works at the only office physically located in Georgia, which covers forecasts and warnings, such as tornadoes and flash floods, for about two-thirds of the state. As a meteorologist, Laura produces routine forecast products (advisories and updates that you would see on TV or on weather apps). The National Weather Service provides decision support—supplying information to people who are trying to make decisions based on weather, like emergency managers or people putting on events. For example, when Atlanta hosts the College Football Championship in January 2018 and the Super Bowl in 2019, the Weather Service is already making plans so that plenty of forecasters will be on site for support in case of inclement weather impacting the area (even though the stadium’s retractable roof will provide ample cover come game time).
Laura also currently serves as the acting service hydrologist for the office. In this role, she goes out to the region’s flood-prone rivers to determine if the flood risk is literally rising, and then draws up detailed reports, also known in her world as impact statements. The National Weather Service uses these statements to provide more detailed information when warnings are issued.
“So when somebody says, ‘OK, you issued a flood warning for this river—what does that mean?’ We have specifics that say a house on the right bank of the river could have one foot of water above the foundation or this road is going to be closed,” Laura says.
When Laura was offered her full-time position with the National Weather Service, James was wrapping up his master’s at the State University of New York in Albany. To be near her, he decided to pursue his PhD at Georgia Tech and got a side gig working with a small startup company, CFAN, through Tech’s VentureLab program.
CFAN eventually established a relationship with The Weather Company (which began as The Weather Channel in the 1980s), becoming their exclusive provider of tropical products (advisories, updates, etc.). In January 2016, IBM bought The Weather Company, acquiring their product and technology businesses. (The proprietary name, The Weather Channel, was included in the purchase. The television station was not acquired, however, but is now owned by Weathergroup, who has a long-term license and data agreement with IBM to use the name The Weather Channel and The Weather Company’s data products.) More funding became available to expand, including the creation of a new senior meteorological scientist position, which James took later that year in July.
The Weather Company is using artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve day-to-day weather forecasting around the globe. James and his team take in the forecast the National Weather Service is providing, but they also take in forecasts from a variety of other weather information sources, as well as other predictive models. The Weather Company then figures out a way to blend all this information together and deliver it to both consumers and businesses. James’ job is on the back end to work on the algorithms that are in place to generate those forecasts and combine them.
“I’m taking my knowledge of AI and meteorology and trying to bring those two together—trying to identify how we can help industries that have been plagued by weather impacts and make better decisions as they consider their operations,” James says.
As you can imagine, there’s a lot of weather talk going on at the Belanger house. There’s not always agreement. But Laura and James describe these debates as “healthy discussions.”
Because James is in the private sector and Laura works for the government, Laura likes to say the two are not rivals, but teammates who work in tandem. The Weather Company is working on projects that help support the mission of the National Weather Service, and the National Weather Service is providing data to The Weather Company for their forecasts.
“Since James is on more of the research side of things, and trying to improve forecast models and products, I joke with him that he’s got to leave room for the meteorologist,” Laura says. “He can’t do so well at his job that he eliminates the need for forecasters.”
“And my point to that is that we want to use forecasters in different ways than we’ve used them in the past,” James says.
MAN VERSUS HURRICANE
The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was one of the most active on record. In late August, Hurricane Harvey became the first major hurricane to make landfall in the United States since 2005. Hitting Texas as a Category 4 storm, it went on to affect 13 million people in six states and cause $180 billion in damage. Hurricane Irma followed a few weeks later and went down in the record books for its meteorological significance, including its number of days as a major hurricane and as the strongest storm in the Atlantic this year.
When Irma hit Florida, traveling up toward Georgia, it was all hands on deck for Laura and James at their respective companies. Laura was deployed to FEMA Region IV headquarters in Atlanta to help the office prepare ahead of the storm, and James was called up to write editorial content for weather.com.
“I think there is a general consensus when you’re talking to meteorologists about significant weather systems,” Laura says. “Meteorologists are torn between the awe and beauty of the storm (something we’ve studied and trained for), and the ache of knowing people are in harm’s way.”
As a meteorologist, part of Laura was excited to see such a huge storm persist. But as a forecaster providing decision support to FEMA—knowing what was likely to occur and the potential impacts to the millions of people in harm’s way—it was an emotional experience.
James echoes Laura’s sentiments, but points out that valuable information can come from these significant storms. “As someone who works to implement the science of weather prediction into operations, these hurricanes provide us with a new sample for testing our machine learning forecast systems,” he says. “In the end, these cases ultimately result in improvement in the accuracy of our weather forecast content even though they end up causing billions of dollars in damage.”
Meteorologists like Laura and James know that we can use the new insights gained from significant weather systems to drive better decisions and outcomes not only in the short term (whether or not to put on a coat because of a given day’s temperature or threat of precipitation), but also in terms of the decisions we make when we think about things like where an airport should be located, how we should be designing our cities or implementing building codes.
“You can’t keep the weather from happening,” Laura says. “But you can lessen the impact.”
Weather is an equalizer. It doesn’t care about your socioeconomic status. It doesn’t care where you live. It doesn’t care what college you went to or what you do for a living. It is one of the only things on this planet that affects everyone.
Because of this far-reaching impact, the change in weather statistics over time is an active area of research. The consensus among the scientific community is that there have been changes in things like the planet’s atmosphere, ecosystems and human food systems. James says that regardless of the underlying causes, these changes should motivate conversation and action centered around sustainability policies that increase resilience and reduce our environmental footprint. “A society that is more resilient to high-impact natural hazards like drought, winter storms and landfalling hurricanes is more likely to better withstand the impact of low-frequency climatic changes,” he says.
“You can look at the numbers, and I think it’s 90 percent of the presidential declarations are natural disasters,” Laura says. “We are lucky to be in a field where we can bring some education and some greater understanding to what those impacts mean for people and try to get people to understand what their greatest risks are.”