A Conversation With Paul Yeager, Writer and Meteorologist

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Yaegar-Post.jpgThough he has been a meteorologist for more than 25 years, Paul Yeager makes his living as a full-time writer. In recent years, he has written for various regional publications, contributed to AOL News, maintained a weather blog on AccuWeather.com, and penned books, including his most recent, Weather Whys: Facts, Myths, and OdditiesHere, Yeager discusses why being a meteorologist is like being a doctor in that, once you've become one, you're always one; how water will soon be one of the nation's most valuable resources, leading us to find new ways to recycle waste water so that it's safe for human consumption; and why Benjamin Franklin deserves to be in a weather hall of fame for inventing the lightning rod and mapping the Gulf Stream.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I say that I'm a writer and meteorologist. My "day job" is a writer/editor at Penn State, in addition to my books and freelance writing, but my training is as a meteorologist. Being a meteorologist is like being a doctor -- you're always one, no matter how far you may stray from looking at weather maps and giving forecasts to the public.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?

It's difficult to pick any individual item, but the presence of organic and locally grown food in grocery stores is a tremendous step in the right direction.

We might have to adjust our eating habits when our food choices are more limited since locally grown food is dependent on the local climate and what has responded best to the weather of a given season. But who really wants to eat that orange-ish and flavorless tomato, which was ripened by gas, that you see on the shelves in January?

The improvement in the quality of food and the investment in local farms and businesses should make up for any sacrifice, especially when other advantages are considered, such as a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and general pollution, as well as less dependence on oil related to the long-distance transport of genetically-engineered food.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

I don't think people understand the difference between a meteorologist and other scientists. I know that the name, meteorology, doesn't help with promoting understanding since the weather has nothing to do with meteors; however, meteorologists are not experts in other fields, such as astronomy, geology, and geography.

In other words, we don't know any more about earthquakes than you do. It's also important to note that a meteorologist is not automatically a climate-change expert; in fact, most aren't.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

Water is soon going to be one of the nation's (and the world's) most pressing needs -- and most valuable resources. In the U.S., aquifers are quickly being drained, and populations are increasing in areas where long-term droughts occur frequently. In addition, we seem to lack the political willpower to regulate industries, such as natural gas drilling, that pollute our groundwater and streams.

We need to be prepared to reuse waste water, whether that's complete recycling (treating it to the point that it can be consumed) or reclaiming waste water (treating it to the point that it can be safe for certain irrigation processes or added to aquifers).

Maybe that won't shake up the sustainability world because sustainability experts understand the technology and needs, but it might change the way Americans think of water, especially when they flush.

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

There has always been some desire to control the weather as an attempt to aid agriculture or protect lives, and while there might have been some modest success in this area on a small scale, it's an idea that, in my opinion, doesn't hold much promise.

For instance, we might want to weaken or redirect hurricanes, but I just don't see it happening. All weather is in response to the uneven distribution of heat on the planet, and hurricanes probably redistribute heat better than any other type of weather since they are driven by intense heat accumulated in warm, tropical oceans. They transport an incredible amount of heat northward.

As admirable as the idea of altering the strength and path of hurricanes might be, it's hard to imagine that it would ever be within our ability to tame such a powerful force. Even if it were, how would that intense heat imbalance otherwise be redistributed?

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

I had originally pictured myself as being someone who always thought that he would forecast the weather mainly for the eastern part of the U.S. That's the weather I lived with for my entire life (that's still the case) and what was taught most extensively in school, but after forecasting the weather for the western U.S., with its extremes and microclimates, I became a western forecasting expert.

It turned out well, though. I enjoyed the challenge. It also made me a much more well-rounded forecaster and eventually helped me with my weather writing.

Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?

TIROS (Television Infared Observation Satellite) was the first weather satellite (launched in 1960), and it completely transformed the field of meteorology. Seeing the weather from above has aided in understanding and predicting it, and satellite data has greatly improved computer forecast models that forecasters depend on. It's not technically a person or an organization, but TIROS definitely belongs in the weather hall of fame.

Benjamin Franklin, our Renaissance founding father, also deserves to be in the weather hall of fame. He invented the lightning rod, the design of which is similar to what we still use today. He was also the first to map the Gulf Stream and was among the first people to theorize the wind flow around high and low pressure systems. He was a true meteorologist, which means someone who studies the atmosphere.

Certainly, I think that NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) needs to be in the hall of fame. It's the umbrella organization that houses all government weather sources, including local National Weather Service offices, the National Hurricane Center, the Storm Prediction Center (tornado experts), the Hydrometeorological Prediction Center (precipitation experts), etc.

What other field oroccupation did you consider going into?

I had briefly considered astronomy as a possible occupation, but I hear you have to work nights.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

There are many sources of weather information I depend on, but noaa.gov is the one I depend on most. And why wouldn't I? It's in the hall of fame.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

I know that I'm unusual in this regard, but the songs that get stuck in my head are not songs that I currently enjoy; they're usually some annoying song from the past that I was never that fond of in the first place. For me, that's something like Barry Manilow's "Copacabana." In fact, just mentioning the title now has the song going through my head. Thanks for that.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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