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Episode 2: Looking Back on the Emergence of Computers in Weather Forecasting with Sandy MacDonald


AMS on the air. I'm incense, I'm to go to Smith and I'm Jefferson. We're ready to podcast with the MS all things weather, water and climate. He and I sat down, honestly the bottle of scotch and late seventies ESTES park, and we talked about how this weather service of the futures didn't work. I really enjoyed the virtual reality classes, it's getting closer and closer to creation of a world is so realistic. You don't have to actually have your body torn apart in black hole to see it. Good thing. Welcome to our second episode of AMS on the air this week. We're featuring an interview with Dr sandy McDonnell sandy is a legend in the field serving as AMS president in twenty fifteen. And he served in the air force starting in nine hundred sixty seven where he was a weather forecaster. He went onto studies Abbas Feerick science at the university of Utah, obtaining his PHD in nineteen seventy five after graduated in nineteen seventy five sandy began his forty one year long career at the National Oceanic and atmosphere. Ick administration n-o-a-a. He became chief scientist at the environmental research laboratory in nineteen eighty and as director of the program for the regional observe in forecasting services office, he spearheaded the early development of automated weather systems for forecasters by two thousand six Andy was the director of the earth systems research lab in two thousand sixteen Sanday retired after storied career at Noah, he. He developed NASA slow program for hands on sciences occasion, which is vertical, by the way, and he invented the now familiar science on a sphere exhibit this huge interactive display system, shares earth observation with millions of people around the world now works at Spier global, a nano satellite company that offers insights to whether in climate, Jeff you suggested sandy as someone to talk to during ams twenty eighteen with his background. It's a pretty obvious choice for this podcast. But why particular where you inclined to talk with Dr McDonald, first of all, it's always fun to talk to sandy, because he's always got some latest greatest idea that he's telling you about. And you always feel coming from conversation that the future is even more exciting than the president that there's something really to be hopeful about. So I thought about him because we were talking about communication, and how it helps us to sell in a way. What we're doing to the public whether it's. Serving up whole new technologies and new observations new forecast products or just in general serving up the idea that science can do so much, and I couldn't think, anybody who does that better than sandy MacDonald? I can vouch it was an awesome conversation. I got to sit in on it, and we cannot wait to share with all of you. Describe it to people as I tell them, whether eight years old, it was like a lot of people, it was a disaster. My uncle's farm got flooded. He had to a string rope up the night before, and the creek flooded in his house was being, you know, ready to get carried away any along this rope carried his wife up the hill to safety and my uncle was a good storyteller to start with. And I was eight years old in at he talked about, you know, it had rained five inches two nights ago, he woke up in the middle of the night, and the gauge overflowed again. And the creek was roaring so based on that story. I think I became I fell in love with weather, and I always say will I fall in love with whether at age eight. And it wasn't until I was twenty two that I fell in love with computers and technology because by that time head really had enough college courses, and, and sort of could see that how incredibly powerful, they are. So they're they came from different places. But those are the two things I love technology in weather. What, what, what would would you say was the first technology that you fell in love with, was the computer was at some other was absolutely the computer? I can remember thinking and saying the people and this is a lease back and saying that people use just don't realize it. They are going to revolutionize everything. And I don't know how long take the, the power of computing, just seem so clear. And we now know in balk at supercomputers in our pockets, and everything we do is computer dominated in what would really be an interesting experiment is to take our people of this generation and put it back in the fifties without any computing. That would be a shock not do. Well. When you're, you're first computer that the remember encounter, was, it wasn't intendo console or anything like that. Eliza. My first computer was the univac eleven of weight you had in your backyard, or in a house, and quite hard. So I was at the university of Utah, and the graduate program. And, you know, these things were almost like, you know. They were just like worshiped. Here's this giant univac eleven away 'cause it has less processing power than my foam right now. But I would go over there, and I had a weather model I had written. It was actually a global spectral model and I had to two boxes of cards, IBM cards, and I would feed those into the machine and it almost made me obsessive compulsive because if he had one mistake, it would run overnight, and I'd come back in the day in the price on it would be written on it had spent one hundred thirty two dollars which in those days was a lot of money and I had missed a, comma in fortran statement. I mean right now, you, you debugged a com. Okay. You know you just change it. But in those days, it was, you know, gonna practically break, our department for for steaks. So it was it was an experience in. It was a positive experience. Like, I can't believe that this thing can compute all these calculations to show with. The weather's gonna do for five days, and it's all these things that I typed in on IBM cards. It's just the it was just a trip. And of course, it's played out over a long period of time. We're almost fifty years on and the effect and the positive effect that hasn't people I mean, we know that we're going to get the giant offshore bomb. And we know that we're going to get the, you know, twenty below weather, and so on. It's just a it's been an interesting sequence. You had such a hands on relationship with the computer back then. And so. How, how do you explain to people when you first encountered computer? You see what it can do you said, you know, it sounds like you are sort of an evangelist right from the start telling people this is going to change the world. How did you know that you think? And what did you do explain that? People would never seen one or used one, I think, in the old days, people that will computers are really fast, adding machines, and as usual when I get interested in something I find all kinds of reading material on it. And you know, I found this book, which I think a lot of times people jump to try to more. Get to more advanced stuff to me. I guess, start with the basics the basics showed how computer can encode images that, you know, people thought they were adding machines, but it, it can encode images. It can encode a voice it can every aspect of life. A computer can create very often technology. There's some people that can see kind of these big future things coming and I was lucky to be a place where at university Utah at the time there were leaders in those areas, they were the first on the Arpanet and, and the computer graphics. I always say that most of my friends from those days when off to Silicon Valley are all worth one hundred million dollars. I wanted to career weather. And I've never been Sewri. Glad you did. At the lot of people would say the same thing that, you're, you're living what you liked to do. The outflank have, what could be better. But I also like that, that idea that computer graphics, most people, consider that or did at the time, I think, consider that something frivolous. Like that's all you're just playing with the computer. Did you feel like you're playing with the computer at all? Or what we know doing. I didn't actually have to say there was I wish I could remember his name and he's a he's a very well known. Person in the computer graphics field, but we had a professor from the computer science come over just gave us a little seminar. And I didn't know why he did it even this and usual. So there's like ten of this in the in this room, and he, he says, you know, you guys in weather, you generate huge amounts of data. And then he should he brought out this printout, you know, the way that I was printing. Things is just as giant printout, and he said, this is not the way to look at whether data, you know, and he did it in such a terrific way that it really became obvious that for sophisticated things. I mean, nowadays, you watch program on Nove and they're trying to show you what it's like to go inside a black hole or to see these two neutron stars circling each other. You know, people can create a world, so we can't go visit black holes. Or neutron stars. And we can't sort of stand back and look, the sort of really complex interactions that you get in on the five hundred mil lavar surface, for example, as it's creating a big storm, but we can portray them, and you can sort of almost get there. And I'm kind of, you know, nowadays, I really enjoy the virtual reality classes in just like it's getting closer and closer to creation of a world, so realistic, you don't have to actually have your body torn apart in the black hole to see it. Good thing. Get into. We won't get any, you won't get any astronomers Esther. Join the national weather service, and they were at the time. Richard Haugen had this vision of the national weather service says that exists now and his vision was you'd have all the radar the satellite, the models and everything, integrated, you know, with graphics and, and the kinds of ways to look at it, and he and I had some lots of talks, and I ended up running a program that built the first quivalent availab-. And what really became able was the idea there that you might be you moving forecasters into something new, that would be unfamiliar to them, but that they would go to like, or did you feel that did you have a sense of how they would take to it when you were developing it. I thought it would be resistance in there was. But when I was forecaster, I had some facts charts, you know on the wall over here ahead of teletype that said what the surface stations were doing. I could pick up the phone and call the radar guide and say, how does that storm? Look, I had essentially satellite that came on the facts that was so fuzzy you could kind of make out that there was some clouds there. But they came like three hours late. And so it was really clear that the way I said it at the time is, you know, everybody has fabulous parallel processor, their brain that can really integrate information. But you gotta put it in a way that the brain can use it. So, you know, when you're talking about you get the we didn't even have emotion just be a still satellite picture. Be somebody's descr. Option. Yeah. This looks like a really nasty sell, you know. So it was the feeling that I had having dinner forecast for several years that. If you could put them together on the same screen in color living, beautiful, high resolution graphics that you'd be taking advantage of the best of the computer isn't gonna tell you so much. What's important, because the forecasters experienced seeing that ice storm before she knows that one of a storm gets that rightward, moving look which, you know, even in even in my youngest days was obvious that, that if you had a storm that acted in a certain way, visually that it was one that was that was probably gonna produce a least tale, not a tornado. So I thought, I mean, it was pretty evident it just a matter of make it happen. And making it happen was a lot of hard work. What was the hardest part about about that to save? It was on the biggest challenges in developing that system to some extent. They were the police. Ical challenges. Dick Haugen had said, I have this vision of this, great new, you know, national weather service with one hundred thirty forecast offices. And forecasters at each one that understand their territory so well that they know of particular type of wind is going to create a dust store year. And so, in other words, his idea was the best service is people who understand what the weather is. And they're like firemen, there waiting for something to happen, who are going to. So dick would send these these congressional people, and administration people in all these out the boulder see this forecast office of the future in our member. You know, a lot of my really great. And some of them this one guy went up came out guy that I worked with subsequently in my career. And he said, look at this, if there was ever aways, we gotta let proxy Meyer. No, there's a terrible waste of government money going on out here. He was he wasn't anomaly, but it was a fight to cut of show the political world that this was important because it was, you know, it was pretty good money. We were inflation-adjusted getting like thirty million a year. So it was a, it was a big investment by the US government that dick Coggan had been able to sell the way dick explained that, you know, the head a lot of, you know, nice dinners with wine with congressional staffers. That's the way dick described. You know he and I sat down, honestly with the bottle of scotch and the next seven. Estes park, and we talked about how this weather service of the futures didn't work. I think of us an inventor as much as scientist is, is that same is that the same thing is similar. Yeah, it's sort of I think there is a, you know, the world needs all types, but I've always felt like both my fall tonight the energies, I don't I don't start by seeing limits. Kind of say, well, why the hell can't we do this then later on? I figure I know why he didn't do this. You know. So I think that's probably a psychology that is mixed value in Evelyn airy context. But it is a way to be creative. My mother, who was, you know, smarter and more creative than I am. At least she told me so she always said, will you can't just think about all this technology, sandy, you've gotta think about what are the social facts? How, how do we have, you know, life? That's rewording, you know, for. Everybody in society, not just, you know have the machines. Do everything everybody, you know, hitting the opioid or something that was part of the issue with the forecast systems, right? Because sense, always has been sense that forecasters were facing dwindling prospects. Because the computers, right in that was wasn't that right from the beginning sort, of, I mean, I think it's in every area of technology. And in fact, even now I think it's a big issue. The idea that forecasters who understand their area in understand the sensitivities of the area, kin do a better job. I personally think is still valid because leather is really different in different places in and there's different sensitivities. Because everybody's weather sensitive someway, whether great way to I think, to sell the idea of technology to the general public or cell science as scientists you must have lit really loved the idea of, of. Telling the general public were explaining to them some the science that you're learning it sounds like science on a sphere was one of those projects. Did you have any others leading up to that we were working with general public blow program might be another? Yes. How did how did that become a passion of yours will aglow program was basically, in Al Gore's book? He said, basically kids would go out and major the world they would do would have a better understanding of it. And so when Clinton Gorgon elected the head of our research. Came to me and said, this just sounds like what you've been talking about, you wanna see, you know, the vice president wants somebody to work on it. So that's how that gut going. Well for what's next for me in, you know, this is proof that I. Failure. I think, is we have a solution to global the global energy. Con in other words, a technical solution that works that doesn't increase the cost of actress ity, and I on team at no approved it after six years of hard work, but we haven't gotten anyway, it's just sitting there I go give talks. And, and so I, I guess I have to learn something about affecting the larger scale. Well, a lot of stories that if anyone could do that. You could science severe globe and other programs like that. Yeah. And this is a this is a neat idea. Basically says that wind and solar are now the cheapest form of entertainment. Energy in everybody says, oh, good. They're going to take over and I'm saying, no, no, no chance, they're going to end up about less than ten percent. And they say what if there's cheapest y and say, the answer is, if, if you're going to make wind and solar work, you have to be able to move them in real time. So for worthy wind is blowing. So if you put a, you know, solar panels on your house, unfortunately, it can be cloudy and dark for five days and you just can't live with maybe I'll have electricity. Sometimes not other. So there's a it's fairly simple answer. And it's a really important answer, particularly now that our costs wind solar gun, so, Hugh. And the thing is it works everywhere, in the world we, we showed it worked in Europe, China US everywhere, works everywhere. So the world could switch to a non carbon intensive program in it's clearly shown, and we somehow have. To tell tell and some that's your next channels that is challenge. To cut it when, when you think about a computer when you think about what, what you see it as my laptop, but desktop something that I used to. Breach the world. I mean, there's a whole another aspect of that the internet. And that's that's how I kinda see it now as like a conduit to reach the internet to do things on the internet. We're not looking at these computer. We are looking at the Dakota. You're looking at it as a conduit to the world. Yeah, yeah. We don't have to think about it anymore. Except when it something goes wrong. Or you go to a place that has no WI fi. Or you can use your phone or for whatever reason you can use your phone for duty like security issues, or whatever is it's hard. It's hard to live without a computer now. So imagine there was a time when people got into whether because they loved maps, I- I distinctly remember, the first time I encountered whether maps, and obviously the relationship too. Topographic maps is pretty strong. If you're looking at a pressure surface, or something like that. And I love that relationship. It was just great to visualize the whether that way. And I was like, maps when I was a kid, I liked the geography of looking at a piece of paper and seeing how far was from one place to the other and what the obstacles were in between maps or were important. And so now they say people don't even know how to use maps, the young people have never seen a map or used one. And so, I feel like I feel that's one of the entry points into this field of, of meteorology that doesn't exist anymore. Go something's loss, something's gained, but it's, it's, it's different. I wouldn't have been surprised sandy said I got into this because I love maps, 'cause that there were people of his generation and earlier, did when I was a junior, I think, in high school, I went to tore the Penn State meteorology building. And I went up there and everything on the walls where. For these printouts of visible and different types of soundings, and they are all printed out and put up on this wall that someone you know, had update at over six hours or something comeback two years later to definitely be a student in the head, revamped. The entire building in. It was just this giant wall of screens, that were all together that had the same maps, but a lot nicer looking, and I think it's done wonders the computers have done wonders for how we visualize what we can kind of learn just from just from looking at a piece of imagery, I think I, I lift through that 'cause NFC within half the map room, when I started, we had the, the actual maps as you were explaining, and then a couple years while I was in school. It just switched to everything that it'll now and I remember seeing the same experience that you just described seeing the wall of monitor. So it was. The map room and then it became the monitor room and it was incredible. I mean just just to lift through that at that time while you were going to school. It's good. Now you look back at it, and I wonder what they have I mean having back, but I wonder what they have what else they have virtual goggles he can put onto. Go into the eye hurricane. It frees you up. This is one of the things about technology that, so interesting. And I think what sandy does so well over the years with the weather on a sphere. I mean, I always wanted to be able to have some sort of fear ical projection, some kind of three d projection holiday or something, we could just graph for chart which you were doing in three dimensions, and walk around at take a look at it visualize. Think about it, even though I like maps. I would rather have something more, vivid like that to free me up to think about things in a whole different way. What, what you're saying it's interesting because you witnessed this transformation, that was away of freeing up meteorologists and others to think. Better, right. I mean you actually you actually no longer need. But was at that, that ancient picture of, of a weather forecast office, from the twenties thirties, whatever. And they're like, what a dozen young men in smocks. Probably with ink wells and, and protracted and stuff drawing the maps so that some other guy behind a desk, could do all the thinking. They're, they're, they're the ones who just just just to get the maps, produced. That was the entire job, basically. And now, the maps, easy part, the hard part is much more of the time, and that's that's way better. And so the question then is do you feel like you can imagine another step that freeze people even more beyond that? Tempering a good question of how long is a human going to be involved in forecasting? 'cause I know that's a topic. That's brought up in usually at the end of the day, the conclusions is that, well, they are now they probably will be, I think the human aspect. I mean it's, it's, it's really important because the maybe it's going into the communication aspect of it now but we see that in meteorology I mean within the national weather service, you know, everything a lot of the parts are automated. But then now they're moving into more. The -mergency management response of it had deal with people, the social media aspect of it, that, hey, to answer people's questions. There's not really a computer that can do that. You know, for now at least and just a were would it be alone to take. I don't know. I don't know if it's if it's ever gonna go away. There's always going to be something else something new something, something that, that it's going to have to be something that will be this cover that will be new. Leading the humans, maybe the way to look at it is that there will always be need for humans. But what's interesting about technology that it changes the humans that are necessary so that we don't need the ham radio. Geeks anymore to run a good weather operation or the person who feels comfortable working with maps and combining the mentally, instead we need people who are really good at communicating and analyzing and doing things that didn't have to be done all in one mind. So in way, what, what we're saying that we they won't need us humans, they'll need a new kind of human younger better humans for jobs because different job. We want to thank you so much for listening to this week's episode of AMS on the next week. We'll listen in on a conversation with Bill hook and Paul bizarro on the changing world of technology in whether water in climate for Irene Dakota and myself. Thanks for listening and catch you next time on the air. Happy weather.

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