Partly Snowy and a Big Chance of Cold: State Climatologist Deals With it All

Jerry Stenger talking on two phones at a desk smiles at the camera

State climatologist Jerry Stenger fields weather-related calls.

What happens in the state climatologist’s office when the weather gets record cold? University of Virginia environmental scientist Jerry Stenger knows – he’s the state climatologist.

Q. So, Jerry, what happens?

A. All heck breaks loose. Suddenly, everybody remembers my phone number and I become the popular kid. It happens anytime there’s a hint of snow, too. Slow news days don’t help.

Q. When do the calls start coming in?

A. As soon as the forecast for something interesting is issued by some source. A number of folks have my cell number, so the calls often start by 8 a.m. (And I’m not a morning person!)

Q. Where do you get your information, and how much of it is your own interpretation of the data?

A. There are online sources of the basic data from a number of forecast models, but these don’t actually tell you the answer to what the observed weather will be. There’s a lot of interpretation, judgment, tedium, artistry and second-guessing that goes into a final forecast. That’s why it’s always helpful (and reassuring) to find another forecast-savvy member of our department to pick brains with.

Q. What is the most common question from the media, and the public?

A. It varies depending on the situation. Often it’s “what’s with this weird weather?” or some variation on that theme. Lately, it’s often been, “Is this a polar vortex?”

Q. So, what is with this weird weather?

A. A big southward swing in the jet stream is the basis of it. This cold an air mass over us is pretty unusual, but we’ve had extremely cold outbreaks a few times in the long-term Charlottesville record.

Q. Could this be related to climate change?

A. How this might relate to larger- and longer-scale changes is totally unknown.

Q. How many calls do you get during an event like this, and how many during average weather?

A. Depends on the news flux at the time. If there’s an earthquake or some big disaster, I get pushed to Page 12. But up to about 10 calls a day (I can’t physically handle more), and each one can involve some background research and lengthy interviews. Even nice weather can bring out the inquiries.

Q. Speaking of nice weather, when do we get to spring?

A. Don’t hold your breath!

The University of Virginia Climatology Office is a research and public service center in the Department of Environmental Sciences. It provides information and conducts research on the atmospheric environment and the impacts of weather and climate on economic and ecologic systems.

The office’s clients include government, education, industry, the media and individuals. A member of the Southeast Regional Climate Center – one of six regional climate centers in the United States – the U.Va. Climatology Office serves as the official repository and provider of climatic records in Virginia. It handles a large variety of requests for information and provides general guidance on climate issues.

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