The Weather Warriors
With Topper Shutt
NBC4 Chief Meteorologist
Monday, Feb. 3, 2003; 3 p.m. ET
In the past year, the Washington, D.C. area has had dealt with drought and a "real winter" -- complete with regular snowfall -- for the first time in several seasons. No question, weather affects how we live, and when the weather snags traffic, confines Washingtonians to their homes or hits us by surprise, the first people to be blamed are the meteorologists -- who use a combination of art, science and common sense to make their best predictions for the day-to-day weather.
Washington's big four weather forecasters -- Doug Hill, Bob Ryan, Topper Shutt and Sue Palka -- are profiled in this Sunday's TV Week.
Topper Shutt, chief meteorologist at Washington, D.C.'s WUSA9, was online Monday, Feb. 3 at 3 p.m. ET, to talk about high-wire craft of predicting the weather.
Shutt was raised in the Washington area and joined Channel 9 in 1988 from WFMY-TV in Greensboro, N.C., where he was the weekend weather anchor. Prior to WFMY, Shutt was the weekday weather anchor for WTVK-TV in Knoxville, Tenn., from 1984 to 1987. His first position in broadcasting was as weather producer and substitute weather anchor with Cable News Network in Atlanta, Ga., from 1981 to 1984. Shutt earned his Bachelor's degree from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. He studied Meteorology at the University of Tennessee and the University of North Carolina/Asheville. Shutt earned the American Meteorological Society's Seal of Approval in Television and Radio in 1988.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Herndon, Va.: What's the difference between a flood watch and a flood warning?
Topper Shutt: A flood warning means that flooding is occurring move to higher ground. A flood watch means that conditions are favorable to produce flooding.
Regarding Accuracy...: I am no meteorologist, but it seems to me that predictions farther than 4 or 5 days out can be wildly inaccurate. Why then, do we try to predict so far in advance? With the appropriate advances in technology, do you think we will ever be able to accurately predict weather 2 or 3 weeks in advance? Thank you!
Topper Shutt: I agree. From a weather standpoint we would rather do a 4 or 5 day outlook but from a marketing and a news standpoint we are forced to do a 7 day outlook.
I think we are close to accurately predicting trends 2 to 3 weeks in advance. Will we be able to be more specific than that....maybe.
Originally from Texas: What is about these two regions, D.C. and Houston, that make predicting precipitation difficult? Is it the closeness to bodies of water?
Topper Shutt: Yes. When you have a large body of water near you it does make forecasting a bit more difficult. Weather balloons that feed the computer models do not go up out over the Atlantic.
Good Jokes: Heard any good weather related jokes recently?
Topper Shutt: No new ones.
Sterling, Va.: I love the "forecast discussion" posted on the Web by the National Weather Service. To me, this is the most honest weather forecast there is (once you can figure out how to read all its acronyms and shorthand). When the computer models don't agree, and the NWS is unsure of a forecast, they'll admit their uncertainty. Why don't TV weathermen admit when their forecasts lack certainty?
Topper Shutt: Actually we do. I have often said this is a low confidence forecast. On one occasion I held up two pieces of paper that had to different model forecasts and said this one says 12" of snow and this one says no snow at all.
Fairfax, Va.: Topper,
What is your take for the rest of the winter? Think we'll have a big snowstorm with 10+ inches or should I put the snow shovel away?
Topper Shutt: I think February will be colder and drier than average. I sure hope we get another snow storm. I mentioned this the other day....In January there were 10 days of a trace or more of snow at National yet we finished with only 4.5". Below the average of 6.2".
Boyds, Md.: Two questions:
Is there a chance for one more really good snow? I want one more chance to take my cross country skis out in our pasture.
And, are we over the drought crisis and in good shape for summer gardening?
Topper Shutt: I hope we get one more. February looks cold but may be dry.
The drought is over you should be in good shape for gardening this summer.
Bowie, Md.: First of all -- I'm a "snow lover." With that said, we've just "wasted" three weeks worth of good, cold, arctic air and had virtually nothing snow-wise to show for it other than a bunch of little snows and dustings. Now that February is here and there's really only a few more weeks left where we can get a decent (ie, 6+") and not have it melt the same day, do you see this happening? Or is it just going to turn "blah" (30s, 40s, or 50s with no snow) for the rest of the winter? Do you see anything "on the horizon" that could mean a good snowfall for the area (especially the eastern suburbs, which always seem to be "cheated" during snowstorms)?
Topper Shutt: First the good news: It looks cold enough to support snow the next 10 to 14 days. Now the bad news...a lot of moisture will be shunted to our south. We need the northern jet to retreat a little and the southern jet to become active and the dominant jet. I am discouraged but I am holding on to a little hope.
I feel your pain.
Vienna, Va.: In the Post article, you said that you returned a call from a man who pretty much told you that you couldn't do your job. How do you handle criticism (especially when you are wrong) and are you frequently in touch with your viewers -- like those who call and leave messages?
Topper Shutt: It is easy to reach me. I return phone calls and e-mails within 24 hours. When I am wrong and freely admit it. What bothers me is when people call me up to yell at me when I gave a different forecast than the one they are complaining about. The other thing that bothers me is when we make a point to say 'snow south of town' and we get a call from an angry viewer in Frederick asking us where the snow is.
Vienna, Va.: While we may have to ask Doug Hill to get the full story, maybe you can tell us part of why Doug left Channel 9 and turned the chief meteorologist job over to you. I know he thought highly of you -- he gave good marks to your forecasts and often complimented you on the job you did when he wasn't there. Now he ends up being one of your main competitors -- along with Bob Ryan. Any thoughts?
Topper Shutt: I miss Doug. We all miss Doug at 9. Doug went to Channel 7 for shall we say economic reasons and I do not blame him for that. While I wish we worked together having him as a competitor is challenging and fun. He is one of the nicest people in broadcasting that you will ever meet.
Alexandria, Va.: Why does the weather report waste time talking about what it is doing right now? Everyone has a window.
Topper Shutt: One reason is that right now is very different over our viewing area. The other reason is that the weather story flows a bit better if we start with right now and explain what will happen in the future.
Bethesda, Md.: can you explain the difference between a tornado and a derecho?
Topper Shutt: The winds in a Derecho are straight line winds from a thunderstorm while a tornado is a violently rotating column of air. The winds derecho are spread over out 200 miles with a cold front or a squall line. These winds can persist for over 30 minutes. A tornado is a very localized event compared to the derecho.
Oakton, Va.: Topper you (or any other local forecaster) should not have to take any guff from anybody, given the difficulties of forecasting winter snow amounts here, and where the rain/snow line will be. Tell them if they think they can do any better to come in to the studio and try it themselves.
Topper Shutt: Thanks. I wish everyone was as understanding.
Oakton, Va.: Hi Topper,
I love channel 9. I love your weather forecasting and your personality. I saw you and the other weather personalities on TV Guide yesterday. I know that some leave one area station for another station in our area. Are you on friendly terms with the other weather personalities on the other stations?
Topper Shutt: Absolutely. We have a great bunch of local forecasters in this town. Maybe the best in the country.
Arlington, Va.: Looking at the biographical material in TV Week, it says you got an AMS Seal of Approval. What exactly is that and what does one need to do to get it? Also, how did you get into the weather field since, I gather your degree was not in meteorology?
Topper Shutt: My first degree was in history as I was pre-law. To get the AMS seal of approval you must satisfy academic requirements, a certain amount of time in the business and 5 consecutive airchecks that are reviewed by a panel of broadcast meteorologists from the AMS.
Oakton, Va.: Do you have any funny blooper moments you could share with us? And what is the strangest weather phenomenon you have ever witnessed in this area?
Topper Shutt: When I was in Knoxville,TN for fun I predicted when the first snow would occur. The day I predicted was 50 degrees but someone stood over the forecast maps and dropped white confetti on my head and I said 'I guess I was right after all'
The strangest weather phenomenon I have witnessed was the La Plata tornado last year. That is just not supposed to happen in this part of the country.
Vienna, Va.: I agree with Oakton. The terrain and meteorological complexities of this area make winter storm forecasting a nightmare. You guys at Channel 9 occasionally blow a forecast. So do Doug, Sue, and Bob. But you are right more often than not. I agree -- let the loud-mouth complainers come in and try it themselves if they don't like your forecasts.
Topper Shutt: Thanks. There are quite a few of them.
Charlottesville, Va.: Do you look at the Farmer's Almanac? If so, does it have any bearing on your forecasts?
Topper Shutt: I look the almanac for moon phase info and astronomy info also. That's all.
Arlington, Va.: Totally non-weather related question. Is Topper Shutt your real name? Is there a story behind it?
Topper Shutt: Yes. Yes, there must be but Mom and Dad have not shared it with me. Topper is also my Dad's nickmane but my real name.
Annapolis, Md.: As another snow lover, it's bad enough to miss snow by 20 or 30 miles to the north or west, but it's even worse to sit up here in Maryland when it's in the teens or 20s and bone dry, watching the Weather Channel show scenes of heavy snow in North Carolina or Virginia. That's like rubbing salt in our wounds! It sounds like that's your take for the rest of this winter. Bummer!
Topper Shutt: Pretty much. I am still hopeful. Hope springs eternal.
Wheaton, Md.: Hi Topper!
First of all, my wife and I think you are tops! No pun intended.
Secondly, where are you from originally? (I haven't read any articles on you yet.) Also, is there any rate of "Burn Out" in your profession? What motivates you?
Topper Shutt: I grew up in the Silver Spring area. In fact I went to Wheaton Lumber quite often. Our burn out rate is not too bad. Forecasting motivates me. I love what I am doing.
Arlington, Va.: Greetings from a fan in Arlington who enjoyed watching you in Knoxville, Tenn.! I appreciate your professionalism and evident joy in all things "weather." Keep it up!
Topper Shutt: Thanks. Go Vols !
Maryland: Hi Topper,
I remember you when I was in fifth grade when you came to my elementary school to judge the Science Fair Projects. It meant a lot and now I'm in journalism. If it means anything, I'm 26 now.
Topper Shutt: That's great. Good luck.
Silver Spring, Md.: What is it about the location of National Airport vs. the general metropolitan area that typically results in lower precipitation amounts -- not just snow but rainfall -- and is National Airport a better gauge of the area's weather than other airports/locations.
Topper Shutt: We often wonder that same question ourselves. It does seem to be both snow and rainfall but more snowfall. How they only measured 17.8" for the blizzard of '96 while everyone else measured 24" is beyond me.
Silver Spring, Md.: Do you ever get the feeling that all of us are closet snow-lovers, despite all the groans that go out when snow is forecasted?
Topper Shutt: I think there are more out there than people let on. I think when it snows it is a throwback to our pioneer days when we had to nest and prepare for a storm. In today's modern, high tech world there are very few times that nature can not only inconvenience us but actually shut a city down for a day or two. I digress.
Bethesda, Md.: I once saw a great snow storm at night, (big, thick flakes coming down hard) and lightning up above in the clouds. Why did this occur, and when can I look forward to it again? I hear it is a rare occurrence. It was beautiful!
Topper Shutt: When you see lightning with snow, as we saw Sunday night during the blizzard of '96 that means that the atmosphere is unstable and very dynamic. Usually the clouds that produce snow are relatively low....but when convection snow occurs the cloud tops are higher. convection snow rates can be impressive 1- 4" per hour.
Cleveland Park, Washington, D.C.: Topper -
I just want to compliment you and Channel 9 for the excellent weather team you've assembled. You, Hilary, Tony and Howard each have different styles, but I find each of you enjoyable and interesting to watch. I just hope Channel 9, which has tended toward a lot of turnover in recent years, will keep this team together.
Topper Shutt: Thank you. I also think it is the best weather team we have ever had at channel 9 and we will do our best to keep it together.
Washington, D.C.: How did you and the other meteorologists react to the La Plata tornado? Did you know it was coming at all?
Topper Shutt: That Friday I turned to the camera during the 6 PM newscast and said we could have some severe weather here Sunday. Tony said the same thing Saturday and Sunday morning. Howard, Tony and I talked frequently during the course of the weekend. Sunday afternoon came around and we were ready. We sent Howard in the field to chase the tornado while Tony and I were back in the studio giving the warnings. We were the only station on the air during the tornado. We interrupted 60 Minutes ! That was a once in a 50 year occurrence.
Fairfax, Va.: How much of a forecast is model prediction, and how much is it your considered opinion and intuition? How long and how much work goes into it?
And what advice do you have for anyone in school considering going into the meteorology field.
Topper Shutt: The forecast is definitely a blend of the models and your local knowledge. Try and get an internship while you are in college studying meteorology. Also....take some courses in english and history to stay well rounded.
Frederick, Md.: Can you shed some light on this penetrating mystery: what's the difference between "partly cloudy" and "mostly sunny?"
Topper Shutt: Partly cloudy is sunnier than partly sunny. Partly cloudy is .3 - .6 cloud cover while partly sunny is .6 - .9 . (I think I remember that correctly) Partly sunny is a nice way of saying mostly cloudy.
Arlington, Va.: What's the accuracy rate of Punxsutawney Phil's predictions?
Topper Shutt: Not great. He has not seen his shadow only 14 times out of 107.
Bethesda, Md.: Why oh WHY do the TV stations insist on doing all-day coverage when there is a snowstorm? It is ridiculous and how much coverage can you really do? It gets to be too repetitive!
Topper Shutt: Remember the weather department cannot control the news department. We would like a little less coverage sometimes also.
Topper Shutt: I must rock out of here. Thanks for all of your questions and comments. Thanks to the Post for setting this up.
See you tonight on 9.
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