Jeff Renner is the ultimate weather man — best known for predicting our rainy weeks on KING 5 News. Some may think he is no more than a friendly face grabbing his notes from an intern and effortlessly delivering his forecast to the camera. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Jeff is a true scientist and explorer, with an artillery of knowledge about the complex weather patterns and atmospheric changes in the Puget Sound area (one of the most difficult regions to predict in the US).
In the KING 5 newsroom one recent evening, I watched as he spent hours analyzing multiple graphs using a localized forecast model from the University of Washington and other KING 5 resources. After some intense detective work he wrote his notes out and put together his segment from scratch — no interns in sight. I sat down with Jeff to discuss everything from his crazy experience reporting live from the eruption of Mount Saint Helen’s to his role as an expert witness in court cases around the state.
It’s changed a lot. When I started doing this we would go to the National Weather Service which at that time was on Westlake and take a polaroid of a single satellite image. I came up with the idea of putting a clear plastic sheet over the picture and I’d draw on that to show where the jet stream was going.
There was no radar in the Seattle area and the computer models that we had available to us were very rudimentary. You also had the gaps in terms of coverage. Now we can predict weather patterns within miles of a certain point. Back then you had gaps off the West Coast you could practically drive the state of Washington through and not have anybody notice it. So we missed far more often than we do now.
The ways of detecting weather has improved. We have radar including multiple ones along the coast. We have our SchoolNet and weather buoys. We get up to date information from jet liners taking off and landing. Now the problem basically comes down to finding ways to meaningfully digest all that information.
What’s next in weather reporting?
Our models are getting very precise but we still need to better understand the physics in the atmosphere and the changes happening over a few thousand feet. That’s why the research they are doing over at the University of Washington is so critical.
We were in the television business for a broadcast audience and there was the recognition that we were an information purveyor by TV only. Now we’ve added radio, newspaper, social media platforms and our website. The website is a continually updating broadcast in itself.
We’ve also had to change our philosophy. At first we questioned whether to hold off breaking news till broadcast or to get that up on the website regardless. Now, if we know it, we get it immediately. That is another way of serving our audience.
You are often called on as an expert witness in court cases for meteorology. Can you tell me more about that?
Well, there are quite a range of cases. I often get called in if somebody slips and falls or there is an auto accident and they need me to determine whether the conditions could be considered icy. Other cases are often building collapses or damage after a major snowstorm.
Probably where my specific expertise comes in are mostly around aviation accidents. One case I can talk about in a very limited sense was a helicopter crash involving a local pilot and a visiting businessman. The question came down to, “What was the nature of the weather? Was that a contributing factor to the crash?” I was called into address that.
Doing this job everyday is a lot like detective work and when you do those cases it’s really deep detective work. You have the addition perspective or dimension, and you may be called to be disposed in a closed room with attorneys from both sides. They try to poke holes in what you’re saying or what you’re finding. Its very important to remember that you are there to disclose the information you find but you are not there to take sides. It’s interesting when you are matching wits and someone is trying to convince you to say something that you know there is no basis to say. Being a communicator, I enjoy that too.
What’s the best thing about what you do?
There are three things.
1. The mental challenge of doing the forecast. That detective process.
2. Working with very highly skilled people. That’s fun. Whenever I talk to younger people that are going in the field I tell them to try and get in with a really good group. They will set your work habits and your expectations and may give you an opportunity to excel in your specific field.
3. The fun of communicating and realizing you’re serving the public. I often say my real boss is not in the station building, but the people out there. We have to remember that we are a guest in their homes and you want to be courteous and worthy of the fact that they’ve chosen your station and your broadcast to get their information.
What’s the hardest thing about what you do?
I have good friends at the National Weather Service. The big difference is when they walk into the Safeway or QFC the next day, nobody knows who they are. Instead I often hear, “Hey, you sure messed that one up” or “What happened to the sunshine we were going to get?”
It can be difficult in very complex situations when the data you view is in conflict and I have to determine which is the right route to go under deadline. It can also be tough when a situation is evolving very rapidly such as the snowstorm back in January. We hit the amounts and distribution very well but we picked up on the changes to freezing rain mid-evening. Unfortunately we had already done the 5:00 PM and the 6:30 PM broadcast so the people that only caught those felt let down. Many people had lost power. We were the only station that got that on the 10:00 PM and 11:00 PM broadcast but that’s really tough when you are going through your broadcast cycle and trying to catch those patterns as early as you can.
What’s the biggest story you’ve ever reported on?
Definitely the eruption of Mount Saint Helens. I had been doing science and medical reporting and they thought Mount Baker was the one that was most likely to erupt. Since I went to climbing school down at Mount Rainier they wanted me to report on this one. We flew part of the way to Mount Baker and then climbed down into the crater with some scientists from the University of Washington and the US geological survey. Because I had that knowledge, when Mount Saint Helens started acting up I was the person to go to.
We had left two days before and thought it was going to be quiet. The station asked me to go back even though we still didn’t believe it was going to erupt. Dave Johnston, my good friend and scientist was down on the ground. It erupted the next morning and we immediately flew down to the volcano. My friend didn’t make it. I was really quite young and didn’t expect to be losing friends at that time. The scale of the disaster was remarkable. If we flew over and suddenly a T-Rex reared up I wouldn’t have been surprised. It was so prehistoric looking and I was disoriented. I kept asking myself, “Where are we? What are we looking at?”
I recognized this ridge that we had been camped on a couple days prior. This place called Spud Mountain. I saw a car parked there, not more than fifty yards from where we had been camped. I wanted to go down and see what happened to that person. It turned out that fellow on the ridge had driven into a restricted area and the heat of the blast baked his lungs.
You are working on two levels. You’re describing what’s going on as a scientist and a reporter but it was so traumatic that I have unintentionally erased parts from my memory. I had to do my job while dealing with all these things emotionally. That was definitely my biggest story.
What do you tell students who want to become a weather forecaster?
Make sure you have a strong desire to do that. If you want a set schedule and job security the government and the military are much better ways to go. If you like the adrenaline rush of reacting in real time, I can’t think of a better way to go. Just make sure you have good team skills, that you are very flexible, and you deal well under pressure. Things are changing constantly.
What weather myths do you hear the most?
I hear mostly about the Farmer’s Almanac but they are less than 50 percent correct. They’ve got their special formula. In any science, the way of advancing is you develop a method and then share your findings so others can test and make sure that it works. Its like double blind studies. If you can’t independently confirm that, then it becomes really suspect.
What’s one thing people don’t know about you? I love to go diving and shoot underwater photography. I particularly love this shot I took of plumose sea anemones.
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