A career in weather predicted to be a success

Thursday, February 22nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) -- In 1996, Helen Hunt made chasing tornadoes seem sexy. Bill Paxton cast thunderstorms in a new light. And wide-eyed 14-and 15-year-olds gobbled up the scenes from "Twister" along with the popcorn and dill pickles at the movie theater.

Those once-impressionable teen-agers are now heading off to college. And what major do you suppose they're choosing? For some, it's storm chasing.

Trouble is, storm chasing isn't a college major. Even in Oklahoma, which offers a natural laboratory unlike any other, the occupation doesn't really exist.

But the profession -- meteorology -- does. And despite the misinformation, romanticizing and idealism some may harbor about those who work in the field of weather prediction and tracking, those affiliated with the University of Oklahoma's School of Meteorology know the truth.

They don't teach weather prediction, per se, but rather applied physics as it relates to the environment.

Frederick Carr, a Boston native, who has served as the school's director for more than four years, says 300 students comprise his undergraduate class this year. Each year, 30 complete their bachelor's degrees and begin work for the government or private industry.

Along the way, dozens figure out that the program isn't just smiling and reading a forecast. The math and science requirements are staggering, he said.

"It's the reverse of brain drain," he said. "It's brain gain.

"Seriously, many come into this program thinking storm chasing is a full-time job," Carr said.

"The ones we do graduate are incredibly strong students.

They'll do very well in the industry."

The school in which these students learn their profession is considered among the best in the world.

This year's class members come from 30 states and several countries. They come to learn from the well-respected faculty, of which one member, Doug Lilly, is a national champion for the Sooners in his own right.

Lilly, professor emeritus at OU, is Oklahoma's only member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Independent rankings also place the school at the top of the list in several areas, including the study of severe weather, Carr said.

Jeff Kimpel, who is affiliated with the OU School of Meteorology and director of the National Severe Storms Laboratory, says OU graduates' careers are leading them into high-tech territory only recently charted.

For example, one recent graduate was snatched up by M&M Mars.

Instead of tasting chocolate, though, his work involves monitoring the temperatures of cocoa-producing climates for stock trading and production purposes.

"A lot of people think weather is about clouds and TV forecasting," Kimpel said. "Obviously, that's not true. And more and more, we're proving that our profession has a solid place in the high-tech business world."

He said energy companies, agriculture, recreation and tourism, retail and transportation are all among the fields relying more and more on weather data.

"And as the economy changes, it will be aspects like that making a bigger difference," Kimpel said.