ANN ARBOR, MI. — When Jeff Masters was 10, he helped launch the “mad scientist club” in his Birmingham, Michigan, school, writing a 100-page thesis based on observations from his telescope.
By the time he was 12, he was diligently tracking the strength of wind gusts from a weather station he had set up in his backyard. The Midwest’s extremely variable climate conditions intrigued him. “I was always interested in weather,” he says.
It’s the kind of story sure to sound familiar to many of today’s meteorologists, weathercasters … and just plain “weather geeks,” a term they use endearingly of course: Weather gets into their blood early in life, and it’s something they take with them long into their careers, whether specifically weather-related or not.
|Wunderground.com’s Jeff Masters’ dream job — ‘the truth’ and presenting what he sees as the best science.|
Today, at age 50, all-things-weather are his job and his passion. A co-founder of The Weather Underground (wunderground.com), Masters created most of the software that formats the National Weather Service data used on the website, and also the imagery on the tropical page. And as a blogger on that site, he’s also become a committed advocate for the need to address human-caused climate change.
As Masters sits before a huge screen displaying maps from his site in his Ann Arbor office, he’s dressed in stereotypical scientist garb: a casual shirt, khaki shorts, and knee-high white tube socks with black dress shoes. Photographs of two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hurricane hunter airplanes hang on the wall, along with a certificate recognizing his service there.
From College Degrees to Hurricane Hugo Scare
After receiving his bachelors and masters degrees in meteorology from the University of Michigan, he says, he was “burnt out from school.” On a lark, he applied for a job with the hurricane hunters as a flight meteorologist for NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center. From 1986 to 1990, he spent his time flying into the eye of hurricanes.
“It was a dream job” that satisfied his huge fascination with weather, he said: “What better way to seek out the most intense storms and most interesting weather phenomena?”
He relished the thrill of the experience, but a near brush with death, flying into September 1989’s Hurricane Hugo, gave him a fresh perspective. The team had underestimated the weather, expecting a weaker storm. “We shouldn’t have been in the eyewall of a category five hurricane,” Masters says, thinking back and adding that they hadn’t paid adequate attention to the warning signs.
The plane’s engine caught fire and there was extreme turbulence. But the pilot was able to keep control of the plane, allowing it to land safely. Masters decided that would be his last flight, and says now that he still suffers from lingering effects of the “traumatizing” experience.
Wunderground.com — 10 to 11 Million Page Views a Day
He returned to the University of Michigan in 1990 to get his PhD and developed an internet-based weather-education project, the precursor to The Weather Underground, which he co-founded with Perry Samson, his PhD advisor. The Weather Underground launched in 1995, becoming the first commercial internet weather service, and among the first using real-time features of the internet for weather education. Today, it’s the 80th largest site on the internet, getting between 10- and 11-million page views a day and 15-million unique users a month.
Masters considers this another dream job, not only creating the programming but expanding his role to blog and generate content for the website.
Masters reads plenty of other blogs, and is a fan in particular of John Cook’s blogs at skepticalscience.com/. He also frequents realclimate.org, climateprogress.org, and desmogblog.com, which he thinks does well at unveiling climate deniers’ public relations campaigns intended to counter climate change science.
Masters says his blogs don’t “trash people” or question their motivations. “I’m just speaking the truth as I see it,” and presenting the best science, he says.
Masters considers himself different from most meteorologists, many of whom he says are unreasonably skeptical of climate change science. He says he thinks their skepticism stems in part from bachelors degree meteorology students’ not being required to study climatology or climate science as part of their formal degree requirements.
Masters says he believes that the conclusions of the IPCC report are “genuine, valid, and probably understated.” And he is critical of what he sees as well orchestrated and well funded climate misinformation campaigns.
“They’re able to persuade even intelligent people with a background in meteorology” that climate change isn’t occurring, he said. “It’s going to be a terrible wake-up call when the climate becomes unstable, and we’ll kick ourselves for being resistant to cutting our use of fossil fuels.”
He’s shared these views in his blogs, not surprisingly leading to hundreds of “hate e-mails” a year. Critics call him biased and chastise him for defending scientists named or involved in last fall’s hacked e-mails controversy at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. While he respects the right of these people to voice their point of view, he doesn’t pull punches: “The ignorance and greed that human society is showing in this matter will be to our ultimate detriment and possible destruction,” he says.
He urges his 14-year-old daughter to educate herself on climate change. “It will be the defining issue of their generation,” he says, though he admits these pleas fall on unconcerned ears for now, as she still has “one foot in the world of childhood.”
Masters works two days a week from his rural home, a half hour from his Ann Arbor office. During the hurricane season, he works every day. He’s financially stable enough to retire, but he says he has no plans of slowing down. Though marriage and a child and that earlier Hurricane Hugo scare have tamed any desires to fly into the eye of a hurricane, he says there is much left to do.
“There’s too much of a need for my skills now,” he says. He plans to continue being “a spokesperson for the best science we have on what the planet is doing and where’s it is headed.”