Weatherman dream: My first stab at weather education


Not an auspicious beginning...

I actually first dabbled with weather education as an upstart ivy-league collegiate trying to fulfill my Columbia College core curriculum science requirement.

I swindled my way out of any real math or science class in high school. As a freshman at Columbia I didn’t think I could muster a B in my first attempt at a science class (the Science of Psychology) so I opted to pass/fail it and thus eliminate it as a class I could count toward my requirement. Then I had the bright idea to take a weather class to re-start my journey to fulfill the science requirement. I loved the weather, was passionate about the weather – of course I’d rock this class. Would be one science class down, two to go.

No problem.

Big problem.

It was the spring semester of my sophomore year (Spring 2003). The class was “The Earth’s Climate” taught by the well-respected Arnold L. Gordon and Martin Visbeck. These guys are weather studs – like the best of the best in one of the preeminent Earth Studies programs on the planet (CU’s Earth Institute).

Of course, being that I was in my fourth semester of classes at Columbia, I still I had no idea how to read the course catalog. When signing up for Earth’s Climate the preceding winter, I didn’t even flinch when looking at the course code (3003Y). Those numbers meant absolutely nothing to me. I thought the Earth’s Climate was right up my alley – hurricanes, doppler, storm clouds, tornadoes – it would be easy shmeasy.

Shockingly nobody in the school’s Earth and Environmental Sciences department, in Columbia’s registrar office or in our student advising/guidance office mentioned that 3003Y meant uber uber advanced. Like take two pre-reqs (doppler for idiots?), and then get in the ring with Gordon and Visbeck for 15 rounds.

Somehow they let this kid flyweight spar with Holyfield and Bowe and everyone just bit their tongue during the weigh-in, knowing I was about to get my face broken by them. No sign off on pre-reqs. Nothing.


Why bother going to Long Beach? Bikini car wash over here!

Unfortunately, the combination of my complete climatology ignorance and my beach-babe-stalking prowess made for a disastrous classroom experience.

The class was seminar style. Just 8-10 of us around a cozy table discussing climate change, and weather patterns and theory in-depth. I was a fish out of water immediately. All other nine students had taken the pre-reqs (shocker), were upperclassmen, were nerdy, were all writing thesis on weather-related issues and all had great relationships with the teacher, Dr. Arnold.

How’d they have such a good rapport? Because they either took a class with him already or because he was their weather-studies adviser or because they were all drinking buddies. None of these applied to me. I was immediately the class outcast. Underage, nervous and quiet; carrying pencils when we were required to bring pens, and using a trapper-keeper when everyone else used spiral notebooks. It was ugly.

Really, I was hanging out at the steps so much during the week that I was only going to my class on Monday afternoons – I assumed that’s the only day it met.

I had no idea I was skipping so much until Dr. Visbeck asked me where I had been on Wednesdays. I replied “Wednesdays?”

Luckily, I still had the end-of-semester presentation and final to make up for my weather iniquities. Unfortunately again, my general state of spring laziness and my utter lack of weather knowledge compelled me to prepare an underwhelming presentation on hurricanes (I have it here next to me – I’ll send it to you if you’d like to see the work of art).

The presentation was stupidly simple, had no depth whatsoever and could have been written by a fifth grader (literally). It’s so shocking I really believed I would do well on the report. I found some really nice moving images of hurricanes from NOAA; I’m not joking – I thought the circulation action of the hurricane in my jpeg was so state-of-the-art that I would get an automatic B. I remember showing these roided-out JPEG’s to my buddies before the presentation thinking I was golden.

To give you a feel for the presentation, here’s the first page of presentation text: “The terms ‘hurricane’ and ‘typhooon’ are regionally specific names for a strong ‘tropical cyclone.’” Amazing! How did I come up with that piece of genius?

I’m surprised the class actually let me finish the presentation before beating me with a cane. While my peers were doing highly-sophisticated presentations on global warming and other cool weather stuff, I was showing comparison shots of how big the radar pictures were of Hurricanes Hugo, Andrew and Donna. I also defined the term “Storm Surge,” which I also thought was pretty groundbreaking at the time. Dr. Arnold didn’t.


My chicken scratch from the final. Not legible.

That strategy backfired too because Gordon and Visbeck already had me under surveillance. The bad handwriting trick didn’t fool them. All it did was earn a “I had a very hard time reading your handwriting” comment on the front of the final. Gulp.

Here were some sample questions on the test:

Don’t believe me? Look for yourself

*The solar constant is about 1436 W/m2. Why is mean the top-of-the-atmosphere short wave radiation only about one quarter of the solar constant (no equation, think about Geometry)…..0 points
*What are the surface winds called at 10-20N and in which direction are they blowing?….0 points
*Describe and sketch the atmospheric and ocean conditions during the two phases of the ENSO cycle….2/10 points

I think you get the point. It was a blood bath. Arnold wanted me dead. I didn’t know anything, and I had a date with Alma Mater back on the steps so I needed to fly through the test anyway.

Final score=29. D.

So how’d this fairy tail end? Well, I got my only C in college. Either way, I couldn’t use the class towards my science requirement. I was blacklisted from Columbia’s Earth Institute (not really but I might as well have been), I completely embarrassed myself in front of my class of ten upperclassmen and two of the most prestigious climatology professors in the world, and I set my weatherman dream back about ten years.

To be fair, I did have one hell of a semester on the steps. My tan looked great, I knew exactly when the cross-country and track girls would run by every day, and everyone knew not to take my seats in Tier 2, Row 7. I wouldn’t take that semester back for anything.

But what about the folks who I hurt along the way? Arnold and Visbeck. Great guys. Highly respected. These were frequently published, innovative researchers who some immature 20-year old tried to dupe into a good grade. I left these poor men with a poor taste in their mouths and left myself an ugly grade on the transcript: I had disrespected their pedagogical status, insulted their intelligence and spat on the entire climatology and weather profession.

Is this a confession? Yes. Do I feel terrible? Am I sorry? There’s not a day goes by I don’t feel regret.

What can I do now? I think I can apologize. I will apologize.

To be continued...

Scott Zakheim website

Scott Zakheim on Twitter (@weatherdream)

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