The members of the Scalia Laboratory for Atmospheric Analysis put out at least two forecasts every day from their office at the top of the Clippinger Laboratories.
Faculty, staff and student forecasters interpret current local and regional conditions, atmospheric conditions, forecast models and even an outdoor webcam feed to predict the weather.
“I think there's somewhat of an art to it, too,” Scalia Lab Director Ryan Fogt said. “It's not just pure science. There's somewhat of a gut intuition, you have a feeling this is going to happen. That intuition is pretty powerful, and knowing when to trust that intuition or when to push it away is really helpful.”
The student forecasts are published on the lab’s website, Facebook and Twitter every day “from New Years Eve to New Years Day,” Fogt said, as well as on a weather hotline that the lab keeps for people without immediate access to the internet.
The lab has offered call-in forecasts since its inception in the early 1980s. Two undergraduate students who wanted to expand the forecasting program in 1981 would climb a weather observation tower on Porter Hall to pick up the National Weather Service’s forecast on the radio, which they would publish on an answering machine.
By the late ‘80s, the lab installed a small satellite dish — often covered in chicken wire to pick up the scrambled NWS signal — and nine answering machines to field over 400,000 calls per year.
The lab has since moved its forecasts online but keeps the hotline as a tool for the community, Fogt said.
“I think that’s what’s important about what we do,” Fogt said. “You can go on your phone and get a weather forecast, you can go online and get a weather forecast, there's so many ways now to get weather information. What we're doing is adding the local knowledge.”
Their work does not go unappreciated, Fogt said. Students have their face and email attached to every forecast they publish. When the 8 a.m. deadline for the morning forecast is missed, the lab will get calls from community members.
“Students take it very seriously because of that,” Fogt said. “Especially when go into a career, this is like their resume, their record of how good (they) are. And any feedback you receive in that time, especially public feedback, is going to be really critical to establishing your place in the future.”
The feedback they get is mostly positive though, Charlotte Connolly, webmaster for the lab, said. They have some regulars who will comment and ask questions about forecasts that are posted on the lab’s social media pages, and the lab will receive the occasional message thanking it for a correct forecast.
Students in the meteorology and forecasting classes are required to spend time in the lab as a part of their major, but many come back afterward.
Logan Clark, a second-year graduate student studying geology with a focus on meteorology, began working in the lab while he was an undergraduate and is now hired on as the associate director.
“When I was a kid, I loved cartoons and everything, but a lot of the time I would get home from school and turn on the Weather Channel and watch it for hours on end,” Clark said. “I knew that as soon as getting into college, they said it’s going to be tough; you've got all of these physics courses, and math courses, all these different sort of weed-out classes. But if you stick through it, it’s going to be worth it.”
There are 14 students currently helping at the lab as well as four students who are hired on as staff.
In addition to doing daily forecasting, the lab also offers the opportunity to do weather research, Fogt said. His area of research leans more into climate than weather with a particular focus on Antarctica. He has students researching sea ice conditions in Antarctica over the last century and climate change in the southern hemisphere.
The lab also does a lot of community outreach and education, Fogt said. In October, members of the staff will go to Coolville for the Family Science Night to talk to families about weather preparedness and safety.
Fogt is looking forward to the future of the lab within the renovated Clippinger building.
“(The lab) has come from something so outdated and basic to where we are now,” Fogt said. “We're hoping (that) because this building will get renovated, that Skylab is also a major upgrade, to move things much more to the digital era and have a blend of a lot more technology in the lab and do a lot more cool things because of that shift that we will see in the future.”