From 1930 to 1983, the America’s Cup yacht race was contested in the waters off Rhode Island. So it’s not surprising that John Livingston, a native of Providence, grew up sailing, and as a teenager aspired to be a naval architect.
But a love of skiing lured him away from Yale to the mountains of Utah, and backcountry skiing spurred a new interest.
“I took an avalanche course to keep from getting killed. They said, ‘If you really want to know about snowpack, you have to understand weather, and they have a pretty good meteorology department down at the university (of Utah).’
“So I went back to school,” which led to a career as a National Weather Service meteorologist.
After postings in Utah, the nation’s capital, Florida and Texas, Livingston arrived in Spokane in 1994. He was promoted to meteorologist in charge the following year.
Today, he and 18 other meteorologists at the National Weather Service station on the West Plains are responsible for monitoring Eastern Washington and North Idaho.
The office is easy to find. Just turn north from Highway 2 onto Rambo Road, and look for a 40-foot-wide golf ball teed up about 2 1/2 miles toward the horizon. That giant white sphere houses the Doppler radar technology that generates the weather images broadcast every day on local TV stations.
During a recent interview, Livingston discussed his career, the butterfly effect and how much faith you should put in 10-day forecasts.
S-R: As a youngster, were you fascinated by weather?
Livingston: No, not me. A number of people in the organization knew they were going to do this from a very young age. But it took me to my 20s to put it all together.
S-R: When you graduated with a meteorology degree, what were your options?
Livingston: Fortunately, the Weather Service was changing its profile and hiring a lot of new people, so I walked into a great situation.
S-R: Did some of your classmates take TV weather jobs?
Livingston: Yes, and I did some weather reporting on radio and TV. But the media business is kind of fickle. I chose this because it was more dependable.
S-R: What characteristics make good Weather Service meteorologists?
Livingston: I look for go-getters – the ones who identify problems or issues, solve them and make life easier for other folks.
S-R: You’ve worked all over the country. Is moving to a different climate like learning a new language, as far as forecasting is concerned?
Livingston: Yes, but it’s very beneficial, and something that the Weather Service encourages.
S-R: You’ve been in Spokane almost 20 years. Did you settle here because of our weather?
Livingston: Yes. Being from Utah, we always looked forward to coming back to something similar in the West.
S-R: When did global warming first become a topic at the National Weather Service?
Livingston: Probably not until the mid-’90s. They did a survey of NOAA meteorologists eight or 10 years ago, and even then a hefty percentage of them were skeptical. ( Editor’s note: NOAA is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Weather Service’s parent organization. Both are part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.)
S-R: Were you skeptical?
S-R: Is there still a wide range of opinions among meteorologists?
Livingston: Probably less so. NOAA’s official position is that it’s happening, and within our office I think everyone is pretty much on the same page. But it’s still almost impossible to accurately predict what the outcomes will be in terms of sea levels and weather patterns.
S-R: How has meteorology evolved since you joined the Weather Service in 1986?
Livingston: When I started, we relied on machines that printed data out one line at a time and weather maps hung up on a wall. Computers have had a major impact on speed and accuracy.
S-R: Have computers decreased the need for meteorologists?
Livingston: They’re changing the way we do our jobs. We used to just push information out the door, but now we go out to places like school districts and show them how our information can help them make better decisions about things like school closures.
S-R: How accurate are your 10-day forecasts?
Livingston: Not very accurate at all – a flip of a coin.
S-R: What do you think about the “butterfly effect” (the idea that a very small change – a butterfly flapping its wings – can have consequences halfway around the world)?
Livingston: It’s a great way to visualize a problem we face every day. We get so much information on which to base our decisions that sometimes we’ll run the same model 10 times and tweak the initial conditions – different butterflies – then average the results, and often that gives us better forecasts.
S-R: There are a lot of weather-related expressions, such as “red sky at night, sailor’s delight.” Are they reliable?
Livingston: They’re based on thousands of years of observation, which accounts for a lot. It depends on where you are and how you use them.
S-R: How about arthritis as a weather predictor?
Livingston: It can be. I’m dealing with arthritis, which is why summer is now my favorite season instead of winter. I don’t get to ski as much as I used to.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Livingston: The public service aspect – knowing we’re making a difference in people’s lives.
S-R: What do you like least?
Livingston: Some of the personnel issues are no fun. Night shifts definitely put a strain on people.
S-R: Are local TV weather people meteorologists?
Livingston: Several of them have degrees, and some have taken training to learn about the weather and how to present it on TV. Our relationship with TV stations is interesting. They depend on us a lot, and we couldn’t do what we do without them.
S-R: What changes are ahead for the National Weather Service?
Livingston: Some of the stuff we do here will go away – especially forecasting four, five, six days in advance. Our role will focus more on what’s coming up the next day or so. And we’ll continue to reach out to anyone in the community who could benefit from our information.
S-R: Would you encourage someone to pursue a career in meteorology?
Livingston: Typically the people who want to do this have a passion for it, and I wouldn’t discourage them. But the profession is definitely changing. The National Weather Service is under a hiring freeze, but the private sector continues to grow as people develop new ways to access information through smartphones or whatever.
S-R: Last question: What’s our winter going to be like?
Livingston: (laugh) The honest truth is that we’re not very good at predicting Spokane’s winter weather. Right now, with no El Niño or La Niña (warm or cold ocean water temperatures) in the tropical Pacific, it could go either way.