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Latrobe native sits in the Weather Channel hot seat

Sunday, July 07, 2002

By Mackenzie Carpenter, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Greg Forbes is sitting in the hot seat these days.

Greg Forbes, America's most-televised predictor of stormy weather, at his desk in Atlanta.

As the expert on severe weather for The Weather Channel, he's been on the air every afternoon and evening since mid-April -- when the nation's storm season more or less begins -- tracking the big supercells and smaller, garden variety thunderboomers as they pop up across the nation, angry red blobs on the green Doppler radar.

He's a national figure based in Atlanta, a preeminent expert on tornadoes who also has consulted for NASA. But on the night of the Kennywood Park macroburst, or during any of the other big storms that seemed to wallop the Pittsburgh area during May and June, local viewers might have detected a closer connection, just by the way Forbes pronounced "Allegheny Cahntee."

"Yeah, it's true, I grew up near Twin Lakes in Latrobe, watching Joe DiNardo and Bob Kudzma," Forbes, 52, said with a chuckle during a telephone interview in which he expounded on life as America's most-televised predictor of stormy weather. His duties exclude hurricanes, which is the job of the Weather Channel's other nasty-weather expert, Steve Lyons.

Forbes is hardly a made-for-TV glamour puss. Balding, with thick glasses, he exudes a kind of plain, rumpled expertise that is in refreshing contrast to some of the channel's more polished anchors.

Love of weather came to him early, even before that day in 7th grade when he was playing baseball on a field behind Mountain View Elementary School. A "roll cloud" came across the horizon and, with it, a tornado warning.

"I always wanted to be a weather forecaster ever since we had a substitute science teacher at Mountain View who had been trained in weather observation in the Navy and had us drawing weather maps. I had a rain gauge and a weather station out in our backyard."

Forbes went to Penn State University, whose meteorology school has a national reputation, and then to the University of Chicago, where he studied with the legendary Ted Fujita, inventor of the "Fujita" scale, which measures a tornado's intensity.

The Mount Washington twister in 1998, for example, was an "F-0" or an "F-1"-- a relatively weak event. An "F-5" produces "incredible" damage and winds of more than 260 mph, but, Forbes points out, Pennsylvania has had just one officially recorded, in Wheatland, near Sharon, in 1985.

Forbes is a relative newcomer to The Weather Channel, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this spring amid much fanfare (Bill Cosby and other famous fans issued televised tributes). After 21 years teaching at Penn State, he left academia in June 1999 to join many of his former students in television.

It was a good career move. The weather is hot these days, and not just temperature-wise.

The Weather Channel draws upward of 84 million viewers, many of them confirmed weather junkies. Its closest competitor in the forecasting business, AccuWeather Inc., provides weather information to nearly 15,000 clients, including 180 Fortune 500 companies and 1,000 television stations and newspapers.

Founded 40 years ago, AccuWeather is the granddaddy of weather forecasting operations, employing nearly 100 meteorologists at its headquarters in State College. Its web site, AccuWeather.com, received more than 4.5 million "hits" in December.

How did all of this weather mania come about? The experts credit advances in weather graphics, computer and satellite technology with boosting interest in weather, beginning in the 1980s.

Plus, "Everybody's got a video camera and they're out there videotaping tornadoes, or hail," says Joe Sobel, senior vice president of AccuWeather. "There are very few tornadoes that don't get detected, and with our instant distribution systems now, everybody sees them."

"There are whole television programs devoted to home videos of tornadoes or other storms. Doppler radar is covering it better. People are just more aware of the weather now than they were in the 1950s, where you might have read about a tornado in the newspaper."

Of course, not all is blue skies and sunshine. Competition has increased exponentially, both on local television stations, many of which have purchased their own Doppler radar, and the Internet, where such sites as Weather Underground (www.wunderground.com) have proliferated.

At The Weather Channel, ratings have flattened in recent years, prompting it to emphasize a more "human" side to its broadcasting, "the connection between the weather and your life," as one official once put it. There are pretty, polished anchors who have fan clubs, and slick special segments that focus on travel and lifestyles as much as weather.

At AccuWeather, founder Joel N. Myer -- whose own press release credits him with "reworking the arcane science of meteorology in order to educate mass audiences to the forces of weather and how they impact everyday life" -- has come up with sexy new slogans to showcase advances in technology. There's FirstWarn Neighborhood NexRad, which promises to show street-level displays of severe weather, plus tracking for estimated time of arrival.

Last week, his company unveiled a variation of its patented "RealFeel Temperature," which factors in humidity, cloud cover, time of day and year and other variables, with something tailored to the recent heat wave. The "Shade RealFeel(tm) Temperature" will also let you know how hot it is in the shade.

"We're trying to bring weather to the human level," Sobel said, "to use terms and expressions and forecast variables that give a true feeling and a true idea of what it's really like outside."

But as in any business, marketing plays a role, too. When given a choice between using the term "partly sunny" and "partly cloudy," Sobel says AccuWeather opts for the sunny, "because we think it's more optimistic, first of all, and secondly, people don't really listen that intently but when they do, they tend to hear 'sunny.' "

For Forbes, "sunny" is probably the last word he wants to hear.

This is a man who once flew in a Lear jet as a student of Fujita's in order to study the tops of the storm clouds over the Midwest in what was the worst tornado outbreak in history, in 1974.

Then on May 31, 1985, while a professor at Penn State, he watched the radar just as another devastating tornado was closing in, focusing closely on the nearly 2-mile wide tornado that swept across Moshannon State Park in Clearfield County. The region was largely deserted, so there were no injuries or property damage , but there was so much tree debris sucked into the tornado's funnel that it could actually be seen on the radar, a little round ball in the center of a hook-shaped shadow of radar.

"It was a world-class hook echo," he recalled almost dreamily, as if savoring the memory of a good chateaubriand. "It was one of the best radar signatures I've ever seen."

Forbes was asked to study how the National Weather Service performed in that storm, the worst outbreak of tornadoes in Pennsylvania's history, and issue recommendations for improvements.

Now that he's on the tube, he's had to hone a different set of skills. Besides tracking where the bad weather is that day, "and not crying wolf too often," Forbes has had to learn how to be telegenic.

"I've had to try to learn to talk in sound bites and in short sentences, quick and concise, which is the opposite of being a professor where you have to talk slowly so students can take notes. I've gone from hour lectures to minute-and-a-half soundbursts." He doesn't miss academia, especially on days such as the recent one when a caller declared him a life saver.

The man was from LaPlata, Md., site of a devastating tornado April 28 that killed five people. He reached Forbes and declared that his family was alive because the weatherman's predictions prompted them to seek shelter immediately.

"That was nice. That made me feel real good. That's why I always wanted to be in weather forecasting, ever since I was a kid. It's that challenge of predicting what some people consider unpredictable, along with the possibility that you might help save some lives."

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