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IQ

Impertinent Questions with Kristine Harper

As a meteorologist for the United States Navy for more than twenty years, Kristine Harper is distinctly qualified to talk about the weather. Harper is assistant professor of history at Florida State University, and her book, Weather by the Numbers: The Genesis of Modern Meteorology (September, MIT Press), tells the story of how the digital computer changed the science of forecasting after World War II. With help from an NEH fellowship, she is currently working on her next book—a history of human efforts to alter the weather. We asked her to demystify some of the myths of weather forecasting.

HUMANITIES, September/October 2008 | Volume 29, Number 5

If we get stuck in a tornado, will we go to Oz like Dorothy and Toto?
Only meteorologists who fail to predict tornadoes end up in Oz. Permanently.

Who is your favorite meteorologist?
There are too many smart, cool meteorologists to name just one.

Really, how hard is it to predict the weather? My local station usually gets it wrong.
Extremely hard, especially since people remember the “busted” forecasts, not the 85 percent that are correct.

Is it possible to control the weather?
Of course! Ask any citrus farmer who has saved his crop from freezing by using smudge pots or large fans.

Why is there always a run on milk and toilet paper when the forecast calls for snow?
Failure to plan ahead.

Is it better to be caught in a hurricane or a typhoon?
A tropical cyclone, by any name, is equally dangerous.

What is Doppler Radar?
A gift from engineers to meteorologists.

Which is more pressure: predicting the weather for the Navy or for farmers?
The Navy. The allowable margin for error is extremely small, and a bad forecast could kill people, not plants.

How accurate is the Farmers’ Almanac?
As accurate as you want it to be.

What is your favorite “how the weather changed history” moment?
Weather doesn’t change history . . . people’s response to weather changes history. In recent history, NASA’s decision to launch Challenger after a hard freeze—despite the potential damage to the O-rings—comes to mind.

Do you have to be blonde to be a weather girl?
No, but it helps.

They now report the temperature and the “feels like” temperature. How do they know how we feel?
Meteorologists haven’t a clue, but apparently physiologists do.

Who was the first person to accurately predict the weather, or are we still waiting?
Noah seems to have gotten an accurate forecast.

Who is better at predicting the weather? People or computers?
People, with the help of computers.

How did the Cold War change meteorology? (no pun intended)
It provided a boatload of money for computers, satellites, radars, and graduate education that attracted a lot of very talented people to the discipline.

The 1982 pop hit by the Weather Girls proclaimed, “It’s Raining Men.” What kind of storm cell would that take?
A macho one.

When there is nothing else to talk about, do meteorologists talk about the weather?
Meteorologists don’t talk about weather… they argue about it … incessantly.

What do you consider an ideal day weather-wise?
A day with interesting weather—big rain, big snow, big cold, but preferably not big wind, big heat, or big humidity.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Jeez—I’m not that old. Ask me in another forty years.

Footnote or endnote?
Footnotes forever.