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Tomorrow’s Weather Today

eye on the news

Tomorrow’s Weather Today

Whiz kids like Jacob Meisel are democratizing meteorology. December 24, 2014
Photo by Young Sok Yun

The Old Farmers’ Almanac predicts a rough winter, with polar vortices expected to produce frigid temperatures and record snowfall across New York and New England. While that’s bad news for anyone with a sidewalk to shovel, it’s good news for Westport, Connecticut native Jacob Meisel. The 19-year-old Harvard sophomore is one of a new breed of online entrepreneurs who, armed only with Google, Twitter, and Microsoft Excel, are changing weather forecasting.

The meteorology business is in flux. Anyone with a laptop can download the same datasets from the National Weather Service website that produce the forecasts Al Roker uses on The Today Show. Other publicly available sites offer sophisticated forecasting models, with watches, warnings, and advisories as accurate as any you’ll see on the Weather Channel. Demand for weather news is changing, too. People once content to wait 20 minutes for a broadcast update on expected conditions in their part of the country now want a detailed forecast not just about their region, state, or town, but about their neighborhood—and they want it on their phones, anytime, anywhere.

Meisel runs a popular website and Twitter feed serving the upscale suburbs north and east of New York City. Intending merely to aggregate forecasts from the weather services and certain commercial sites, he started laying odds on school closures in an attempt to boost his traffic. It worked. Thousands of kids hoping to learn whether to do their homework the night of a snowstorm started visiting his site. Incorporating indispensable local knowledge into his forecasts—such as a particular superintendent’s track record on delays and closings—Meisel differentiated himself from big-city broadcasters in New York, New Haven, and Hartford. Parents in towns such as Greenwich, Darien, and Stamford started pestering their districts to respond to Meisel’s predictions. His popularity—and his All-Star batting average—earned the enmity of school officials, who resented being publicly second-guessed by a kid.

“They sometimes take it a little personally,” Meisel admits.

Professionals are starting to take notice. “Meteorology is traditionally a tough field to break into,” says Tom Lloyd, JetBlue airlines’ manager of meteorology and route optimization and a resident of nearby Fairfield, Connecticut. “So given his youth and lack of training, what he’s doing is impressive.” But, Lloyd is quick to add, without professional certification from the National Weather Association or the American Meteorological Society, Meisel should be thought of as little more than a knowledgeable enthusiast. “Meteorological training is a lot of hard physics and math. You’ve got to pay your dues.”

Meisel is unfazed. “I don’t have a degree in climatology or meteorology,” he concedes. “So I never expected to compete at the highest levels.” But he is competing, in part, because he offers his followers a more locally tailored forecast. Calling the weather, he says, remains something of a guessing game. “Especially with a smaller storm—a few inches of snow—the timing on that can completely change overnight,” he says. “If you’re smart and you’ve done your research, your guess is going to be just about as good as anyone else’s.”

In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy provided Meisel with a unique opportunity to show his stuff. He challenged New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s early claim that the storm would cause less damage than Tropical Storm Irene, which had devastated Connecticut’s southern coast the year before. Meisel was among the first to predict that Sandy’s storm surge would flood Gotham’s subway system. He was right.

“He predicted what would happen with Sandy better than anyone else and in a way that was specific to our area,” says Alan Kirk Gray, director of the Darien Public Library. This year, the library is purchasing Meisel’s “premium” service—a custom-made report offering hourly snowfall and temperature estimates as well as power-outage forecasts. “I’m responsible for the safety of my staff,” Gray says. “He is giving us good decision-making information and allowing us to fine-tune what we’re doing in terms of staying open during dangerous weather.” Meisel is in talks to provide his services to another large regional library as well as a snow-removal company in the area. A hundred other subscribers have signed up for his seven-day local forecasts, 15-day regional forecasts, and a breakdown of expected changes in natural-gas prices due to weather-related phenomena.

“If you don’t like the weather in New England now,” Mark Twain said, “just wait a few minutes.” But while you wait, why not check for an update from that smart, self-taught kid with a laptop who lives down the street? His guess is as good as anyone’s, and better than most.

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