How’s the weather?

U.Va. researcher Jerry Stenger podcasts the straight scoop.

By Fariss Samarrai
This is an image of Jerry Stenger

Photo by Dan Addison

During the course of a year, Jerry Stenger, a research coordinator in U.Va.’s climatology office, answers a lot of questions about weather and climate in Virginia. His office, housed in the Department of Environmental Sciences, is charged with getting current, accurate weather information out to a variety of constituents.

In early fall, Stenger, a 25-year veteran of the office, spoke with Media Relations senior writer Fariss Samarrai about his work in conjunction with the introduction of Stenger’s new, UVA Today Word on the Weather podcast.

Q. What is the difference between weather and climate?

A. Generally speaking, climate tends to encompass weather on a longer time scale. If you’re looking at the dynamics of a particular thunderstorm, that’s weather. If you want to know how frequent thunderstorms are, that’s climate. In practice, there’s a lot of overlap.

Q. What is the mission of U.Va.’s climatology office?

A. We have three missions, actually: public service or outreach is probably the most visible part, along with research and education. Public service largely involves handling inquiries that come in from many sources, particularly the media, for information about weather issues. We also do research, constantly trying to better understand the enormously complex climate of Virginia; for instance, ways to better forecast winter precipitation types. And we also educate people, mainly graduate and undergraduate students.

Q. How many outside inquiries do you get per week?

A. It varies, but it probably averages out to about three dozen. When there is a major weather event, such as an approaching hurricane, or snowstorm, we can get a great number of calls in a very short period of time. We try to handle them all.

Q. Who calls?

A. All kinds of folks, but the largest portion probably comes from the media — newspapers, radio, local TV, etc.

Q. What kinds of questions do they ask?

A. Sometimes they want information about immediate weather conditions — “Is it going to rain?” Sometimes they are looking for insight and understanding about how weather and climate events work, such as how a hurricane is tracking, or why a drought may be occurring, or how tornados form. In December, we always get questions as to whether it will be a white Christmas or not. We also get questions about changes in Virginia’s climate in relation to larger-scale changes. This also falls into the education category, because a lot of what I do when talking to reporters is explaining to them, as simply as I can, how weather phenomena works, so they can have the understanding needed to write good and accurate stories.

Q. What other types of inquiries do you get?

A. Police departments and other public services agencies are often looking for weather information that may affect their operations, such as planning for large public events. I also work closely each year with our U.Va. major events staff during their planning for graduation ceremonies and other University events. Everyone wants to know whether it will rain or not. We also get calls from lawyers and investigators who are trying to reconstruct what the weather conditions were on a given day at a particular place when an accident or crime occurred. Most of the time I can provide enough information to satisfy the needs of all sides for their case. But I’ve also been called to provide testimony on many occasions.

Q. Do you do any other public outreach?

A. I also do a short public information video each month for a show called “Down Home Virginia,” produced by the Virginia Farm Bureau. This appears on various PBS stations, and online, and reaches about a million viewers. I try to give farmers and the general public a bit of climate information that might be pertinent during the coming month. I also sometimes visit schools and community groups. People are fascinated with the weather, and I love to talk about it.

Q. How do you gather the weather data that you disseminate?

A. We don’t supply data so much as information. We don’t actually generate our own weather and climate data. That is a monumental task done by various agencies of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, such as the National Weather Service, the National Climatic Data Center and the National Hurricane Center. We have direct online access to their data, which we then analyze and interpret to provide information targeted to people’s needs.

Q. What makes forecasting the weather in Virginia difficult?

A. Virginia happens to sit at an atmospheric crossroads. We get warm weather from the south, cool or cold weather from the north and our weather is affected by the mountains and the ocean and the Chesapeake Bay. We are often right on the boundary of warm and cold or moist and dry air masses. So we get some very difficult conditions to try to forecast. A slight change can mean the difference between rain, ice, snow or a pretty nice day.