So Long, Wunderground!

October 30, 2019, 7:07 PM EDT

Above: The intro image from my first blog post, “The 360-degree Rainbow,” which ran on April 14, 2005. I took the photo from a NOAA P-3 hurricane hunter aircraft as it flew through a rain shower near South Florida in 1988.

   “Aaron has written some new software for the website to enable anyone to have a blog, and we’d like you to start your own featured blog.” The speaker was Jeff Ferguson, a fellow Weather Underground co-founder. He and I were having the discussion on an April day in 2005 in our Ann Arbor office. Jeff was referring to one our awesome developers, Aaron Cowdin (WunderYakuza), who worked in the WU San Francisco office.
    “What’s a blog?” I asked.
    “It’s short for Web Log,” said Jeff Ferguson, “and it’s gaining popularity as a personalized way to communicate on the web.”
    “A blog,” I snorted. “Great. Sounds like a waste of time. What am I supposed to write about?”
    “I don’t know,” he said. “I’m sure you’ll think of something. We’d like you to post something three times per week. It might be a good way to get Weather Underground some media attention.”
    “OK,” I said. “But I doubt I’ll want to do this for very long.”

That afternoon, I racked my brains to think up a topic for my first blog post. Ugh. I hated the word “blog” and didn’t have any good ideas for how I would fill up the newly-created “Jeff Masters’ Wunderblog” with insights interesting and readable. Tornado season was relatively placid that month, and hurricane season was over a month away. Finally, I came up with the idea of teaching a little meteorology on how a rainbow is not an arc—it is a full circle. You just can’t see the full circle, since the bottom part lies below the horizon where it isn’t raining. I had a great photo to illustrate this, taken from one of my hurricane hunter flights. We occasionally flew through rain showers where one could see the full circle of the rainbow, and I had a wide-angle lens that could nearly capture the entire circle. My first entry was “The 360-degree Rainbow,” which ran on April 14, 2005.

So, that was cool. I had come up with a good topic and had gotten 11 comments on the post, some of them intelligent and interesting. I made a point of reading all the comments and replying to the ones that needed a response. Little did I realize how “interesting” and numerous the comments would become!

My second post didn’t come until eight days later. I was busy writing code for the website and couldn’t think of any good topics. The post was a bit of a hack job—just four sentences, with the title misspelled: In Celebrattion of Earth Day.

I got reprimanded by Jeff Ferguson for not posting often enough, and made my third post, Cloud Streets, two days later. The Cloud Streets used another photo from my hurricane hunter days, and was 50% longer than the Earth Day post—a whole six sentences! I was still having trouble coming up with topics and things to say. My 2nd and 3rd posts got fewer than ten comments each. I continued to doubt that this lame “blog” idea was worthwhile.

My fourth post, National Weather Service Forecasts to be banned? showed me the value of having a blog, though. Our competitor, AccuWeather, was pushing a bill that had been introduced into Congress which stated that the National Weather Service could not provide "a product or service...that is or could be provided by the private sector." It was a miserable piece of legislation, and I wrote a series of blog posts strongly opposing the idea. My first post on the subject got over 200 comments, and there was a spirited discussion on the topic. My posts got quoted by a number of media sources.

The Hurricane Season of 2005

By mid-May, I was having trouble thinking of topics to write about again, and I was relieved when hurricane season finally arrived. I put up my first tropical weather post, Odd Adrian, on May 20, 2005, discussing an odd-duck Eastern Pacific hurricane named Adrian. It got only two comments. June of 2005 brought me my first Atlantic named storm to discuss: Tropical Storm Arlene. I embarked upon my first consecutive-day posting spree, putting up posts on Arlene on six consecutive days, getting as many as 80 comments per day.

As we entered July, the great Hurricane Season of 2005 began in earnest—a season so remarkable that I put its name in capital letters for years afterwards. A record five named storms, three hurricanes, and two major hurricanes formed in July. Dennis and Emily were both the both the strongest hurricanes ever recorded so early in the season, and I was getting plenty of media attention. I made the “big time”, with a mention of my Hurricane Dennis post in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society--the flagship journal for my profession--and was starting to field interviews on the hurricanes from newspapers. I certainly was not having any trouble finding topics to write about! My posts were routinely getting over 300 comments, and I was no longer able to read all the comments and reply.

I mostly strove to put the storms in historical context, not attempting to do much in the way of forecasting, since my forecasting skills were pretty rusty. During this period, I learned a lot from wunderblogger Steve Gregory, a meteorologist who ran his own featured volunteer blog on our website. He was (and is) an excellent hurricane forecaster with an unerring instinct for what storms might do.

Katrina post
Figure 1. My Saturday, August 27, 2005 blog post where I exhort residents of New Orleans to evacuate immediately. The official evacuation order was not given until the next day. Image credit: archive.org.

Katrina

The day Katrina was named, August 24, 2005, I was in New York City for meetings with the Associated Press, who had just signed up to use Weather Underground as the weather provider for their 5000 newspapers. I had a very uneasy feeling about Katrina, even though it was not predicted to hit New Orleans. When one of the AP staff members made the remark, "It sure has been a slow summer for news. We need a big story!" I looked at her hard and thought, "Be careful what you wish for--you might get it!"

I flew home Thursday, August 25. My post that day, New Computer Model Runs for Katrina, was my first post to accumulate over 1000 comments in less than a day. I made the difficult decision the next day to drive up to northern Michigan with my family and spend a 4-day weekend at my father's house. The Hurricane Season of 2005 had kept me so busy that I hadn't made it up north to see him that summer, and this was my last chance. High speed Internet was not available in his small town of Topinabee on beautiful Mullet Lake, so I knew I'd be spending some slow hours blogging on his dial-up connection. Still, I figured Katrina would quickly recurve to the north and hit the Florida Panhandle before it had a chance to become a major hurricane. It wasn't like this storm would be the worst disaster in modern American history or anything!

Wrong. I spent virtually the entire weekend holed upstairs in the computer room, writing increasingly worried and strident blog posts, exhorting people in New Orleans and Mississippi to take this storm very seriously and evacuate. Every now and then, I'd emerge downstairs and say hi to everyone, then head back up to my cell to watch really slowly loading pages and write new posts. Finally, I couldn't take it any more, and talked my family into returning home a day early. My wife couldn't fully understand why my new blogging job was interfering with our weekend--wasn't this just another hurricane like Dennis or Emily? But she agreed that we'd better go home the Sunday afternoon before Katrina hit, since I was such a basket case.

The next day, when Katrina hit and the full magnitude of the greatest weather disaster in modern American history unfolded, she understood. Indeed, three weeks later she headed down to the Louisiana disaster zone as a Red Cross volunteer physician, and got a first-hand appreciation of how extreme this terrible hurricane had been.

I heard from a number of New Orleans residents afterwards who thanked me for my posts on that nightmare storm, and some of them credited my blog and Steve Gregory’s blog with saving their lives. After that feedback, I became a true convert on the value of the blog. Blogging was destined to become the focus of my professional life for the next fourteen years.

Portlight founding

Figure 2. September 13, 2008: The Portlight disaster relief charity is born in the comments of my post, “Ike Makes a Direct Hit on Galveston.”

The wunderful craziness of the blog comments

One of the most stunning and gratifying experiences of my career has been the emergence of the community of weather enthusiasts in the comments section of my blog--and in the comments sections of the other personal and featured blogs WU used to have. The intelligence and value of the comments has been incredible, and I’ve heard from at least ten people that this blog and the comments section were instrumental in their decisions to become meteorologists. One was Margie Kieper, who wrote an excellent series of guest posts for WU on Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge. Margie went on to work on her Ph.D. in tropical meteorology at Florida International University, and married NHC hurricane specialist Jack Beven earlier this year. I wish I had had more time to interact in the comments section. I am super-grateful for all of the hard work of our volunteer moderators there over the years!

The portlight.org charity, the nation’s preeminent disaster relief organization for disabled and special needs people, got its start in the comments of this blog (see Figure 2). I’ve been plugging (and contributing to) Portlight ever since, and they are doing marvelous work in the aftermath of this year’s ruinous Hurricane Dorian, deploying people and donated equipment to the devastated areas of The Bahamas. Paul Timmons (presslord), who has led Portlight since 2008, has been wonderful to work with, as has Patrick Pearson (Patrap), who was instrumental in getting the Portlight effort rolling. Please consider supporting Portlight!

Patrick now has his own charity that I have been a regular contributor to--hurriup.org, founded in the aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Maria. In 2017, they provided 34 generators to people in need in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. In 2019, they contributed to tornado relief in Alabama--including funds to help purchase a tornado shelter for WU member David Kelley--and provided 12 generators post-Dorian to needy families in The Bahamas.

Remarkably, the blogs at WU were instrumental in at least one romance that led to marriage. WU members Aquak9 and Rainman, who were both fans of my blog, exchanged messages about photos Aquak9 had posted in her WU blog in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. After a few weeks of WU mails back and forth, they figured out that they both lived in Jacksonville—and I’ve already told you the ending! Their wedding was attended by multiple WU members, including Patrap, his son, and Stormjunkie.

Three thousand posts and millions of comments later: the end of the rainbow

After co-founding the company 24 years ago and writing over 3000 blog posts during a 14.5-year writing career, I have reached the end of the wunderground rainbow. This will be my final post as an employee of Weather Underground. I thought my final tropical weather post would be October 25, on Tropical Storm Olga, whose remnants fittingly came up to Michigan on Saturday to wish me a rainy good-bye. However, the tropics decided to give me a farewell storm to write about, and my final storm was today's Subtropical Storm Rebekah. In all, I posted on over 200 named storms in the Atlantic between 2005 and 2019, plus hundreds of other “Invests” and tropical depressions that never got named.

Remember, though, a rainbow doesn’t have an end—it is a full circle. My commitment to make my voice heard on extreme weather and climate change will continue as long as climate science-denying politicians, corporations, and wealthy individuals are steering civilization on the road to climate-change catastrophe. The intense havoc wrought by so many unprecedented extreme weather events in recent years is evidence that the Great 21st Century Climate Change Disruption is already upon us. But we are only beginning to feel the outer spiral bands of this great climate change storm, which is sure to bring at least category-3 level destruction to society in the coming decades. There is still time, though, to prevent the approaching climate change storm from becoming a catastrophic category 5-level superstorm of destruction that will crash civilization--if we take strong action to rein in our emissions of heat-trapping gases. Civilization's infrastructure is already being challenged by increasingly extreme climate change-linked weather events, and we must also work hard to build resilience and adapt to the extreme climate of the 21st century that has arrived. I will do what I can to educate people on the science of what is happening now and what is expected to happen in the future, and encourage those of you who have learned about extreme weather and climate change from this blog to do the same!

Kyarr post
Figure 3. My most recent post at Scientific American, done Monday, and updated on Wednesday: Tropical Cyclone Kyarr (150 mph Winds): Arabian Sea’s 2nd Strongest Storm on Record.

A new blog at Scientific American

I started a new blog in early October at Scientific American, “Eye of the Storm: the Science Behind Extreme Weather.” I will be averaging 50 posts per year—far fewer than the 200 or so posts per year I’ve been doing for Category 6, but enough to keep my voice out there. The Scientific American website allows one to view 3 articles or blog posts per month for free; a $19.99 per year subscription is required to see more. My post this week was called, Tropical Cyclone Kyarr (150 mph Winds): Arabian Sea’s 2nd Strongest Storm on Record: a recent increase in powerful late-season Arabian Sea tropical cyclones is linked to human-caused climate change. Upcoming posts I have partially completed include: “The Future of Extreme Hurricanes”; “Fifth Straight Year of Central American Drought Driving Migration”; “Food or War: a Must-Read New Book on Climate Change’s Existential Threat to Civilization”; and "The Most Expensive Atlantic Hurricane by GDP for Every Nation: Hurricane Irma Stands Out".

Scientific American does not allow comments on their posts, so I plan on engaging with the WU community in the comments section of Category 6 to discuss my posts at Scientific American, as well as Bob’s posts at Category 6. He and I will continue to work together to offer suggestions, quotes, and proof-reading services to each other. I plan to do two Category 6 guest posts later this year: a review of Bob’s excellent ”The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change” (a new edition was published in February), and an update in early December on the charity I am a co-founding board member of--the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund. Those of you who want to contact me can do so at my gmail account, weatherman.masters. I am also on LinkedIn.

Final kudos

A huge heartfelt thank-you goes to my WU co-founders and co-workers that helped make WU the special place that is was, and to the many fantastic bloggers that have contributed their remarkable insights to WU--particularly Bob Henson, Steve Gregory, Chris Burt, Ricky Rood, Margie Kieper, and Lee Grenci. Another big thank you goes to our volunteer moderators, who have done yeoman work keeping the trolls at bay and the discussion weather-centered. Special recognition goes to Maximiliano Herrera, for his amazing work keeping track of global weather records and supplying them to WU. And to all of you loyal WU fans who have stuck with me for so long--thank you, thank you! I love seeing your helpful links and meteorological banter in the comments of the Category 6 blog, and I will greatly miss being the leader of this wonderful community. It has been my honor to serve as your guide.

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

author image

Dr. Jeff Masters

Dr. Jeff Masters co-founded Weather Underground in 1995 and flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986 to 1990. He authors the blog "Eye of the Storm" at Scientific American.

weatherman.masters@gmail.com

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