MASTERMIND: Dr. Jeff Masters
We predict it with varying degrees of success, feel under it, put the
blame on it, sing odes to it – even survive it. The only thing that's
for sure is, wherever you are on the planet, the weather is its own
After digging out from the 6th snowiest winter since 1880
(67.5" at DTW airport), Ann Arbor's got
to be ready for spring. But today Tree Town's smacked by a 36-degree
high temp and shower of ice pellets. The good news is there's almost
three more minutes of daylight today – and no recent earthquake
Or so says Weather Underground, the internet weather service firm that operates the Wunderground.com
Jeff Masters, co-founder and director of meteorology at Weather
Underground, has built a site that wraps his mind around the tragicomedy
of whatever the atmosphere throws at us. Masters co-founded the
Internet's first weather site back in 1995, and today Wunderground.com
is visited by 17 million people worldwide (13 million in the U.S.) each
month, ranking second only to Weather.com in U.S. web traffic.
It's the 77th-most visited site in the U.S., according to Quantcast
, and depending on turns of the weather, has been ranked as high as 52nd, Masters says.
"It was a long fascination that began when I was a boy," he recalls. In
elementary school Masters kept exhaustive weather records and planted a
weather station with a little swinging vane in his Birmingham, Michigan
backyard. He received bachelors and masters degrees in meteorology from
the University of Michigan, where he later returned for his PhD in air
pollution meteorology. During the seven-year break between graduate
programs, he worked as a Miami-based flight meteorologist for the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Aircraft
Operations Center. It was there, as a member of NOAA's Hurricane Hunters team
, that the weather nearly whipped him for good.
dark clouds suddenly envelop the aircraft. A titanic fist of wind,
three times the force of gravity, smashes us. I am thrown into the
computer console, bounce off, and for one terrifying instant find myself
looking DOWN at a precipitous angle at Sean across the aisle from me...
Masters writes in "Hunting Hugo"
his account of the team's near-disastrous 1989 flight into the eye of
Hurricane Hugo on a mission to study the mechanisms responsible for
hurricane intensification. Their radar system failed on approach, the
storm turned out to be a category 5 tempest – and that was just the
eye-opener. The plane withstood 196-mph wind gusts, an engine fire, and a
200-pound life raft torpedoing into the ceiling. It's still in service
today, Masters says.
After that death-defying experience Masters
bid adieu to the Hurricane Hunters. Even so, he still calls flying into
the eye of a hurricane at low altitude one of the most incredible
spectacles on earth, like being in a "stadium" of rotating, bulging
Gazing down from the plane, he describes: "You can't
even see the ocean surface because it's been foamed up into this kind of
spray froth mixture that makes the ocean surface kind of this eerie
translucent bluish greenish white..."
"It's hard to beat that
experience for the most dramatic," he laughs wryly, "because that was
the worst turbulence any hurricane hunter has experienced and survived,
at least for the NOAA Hurricane Hunters."
"Don't knock the weather; nine-tenths of the people couldn't start a conversation
if it didn't change once in a while."
returning to Ann Arbor for his doctoral program at U-M in 1991, he
concentrated on the more applied science of air pollution meteorology
because "I had a lot of concerns back then about how human activities
were harming the environment and people who rely on the environment for
jobs or for a strong economy..." In particular, he studied smog. Climate
change was emerging as an issue back then, a matter with which he soon
At the same time, the Internet was just
getting off the ground. As part of his advisor Perry Samson's class:
"Interactive Weather Computing", he wrote a text-based program that made
weather information available online to anyone on campus. Then Ann
Arbor-based Merit Network
, which ran the Internet backbone at the time, took notice.
wrote a couple subroutines for my program, I plugged them in, and then –
presto! We had weather info available for any place in the world on the
Internet," Masters recounts. Within nine months of launch, in 1992 the
program was the most popular service of any kind on the worldwide net.
was much more fun to work on this Internet-based stuff and that's where
I tended to focus a lot of my energy and time," Master says.
He and Samson received a National Science Foundation
grant to further their educational Internet weather project. After
further successive grants, the NSF suggested they become
self-sufficient, take their project off-campus and make a go of it as a
for-profit operation. So in 1995, with the launch of the worldwide web,
the pair launched their own webpage. The Weather.com
domain name was snapped up by The Weather Channel just weeks before, so
the pair took the moniker of Weather Underground.com, after their
educational project at U-M.
Masters and Samson then worked with
five other co-founders, including Chris Schwerzler and Alan Sterenberg,
former students of Samson's who'd moved to the Bay Area. They developed
the web pages and wrote the software. Another partner, Jeff Ferguson,
was and still is the CFO.
It took a couple of years building
custom weather pages for clients before they could land their first
advertiser. Today, seventy percent of the firm's income comes from
advertising, Masters says. Another 20 percent is derived from custom
feeds for the likes of Google, American Express, The Associated Press,
and over 1,000 newspapers. Another five percent comes from print
newspapers including the Detroit Free Press
, San Francisco Chronicle
and dozens of others nationwide. The odd remainder comes from site
members who pay $10 annually for an ad-free site and extra-long radar
The dot-com crash in 2000, when revenues dropped by a
factor of two, was a cloudy time for the company but since then it's
been on a steady uptick. During the recession of 2009-2010,
wunderground.com maintained 10-20 percent growth each year, Masters
says. Employee headcount is now at 38, and includes six U-M grads.
Thirty-three staff members are based in San Francisco, while Masters,
Ferguson, and three other part-timers are in downtown Ann Arbor.
Underground's pioneer status as the Internet's first weather site
enabled it to build on an initial following that eventually snowballed
via word of mouth, Masters explains. He also points to the viral nature
of the tens of thousands of weather stickers the company has given away.
The graphic takes two lines of HTML code to install and displays the
current time and temperature for your city.
"A lot of people put
them on their websites," he claims. "They got very popular and that
drives a lot of traffic to our website when people would click on these
Weather Underground is privately held and has never taken venture capital funds. All employees get stock options.
had several offers to buy the company that we've turned down because we
enjoy what we do. The one offer we got right before the dot-com crash
we're really glad we didn't take," Masters laughs. "Because that was all
in stock which immediately went to zero within a few months!"
the company remaining in the original founders' hands, Masters sees
expansion potential in a push overseas to provide radar and satellite
data and severe weather warnings in markets where the Internet hasn't
yet reached a saturation point. Employees are also building apps for the
mobile device market.
The current forecast and colorful, fast
radar images are the most popular features on the site. The site is also fed by
data from the world's largest network of 17,000 individual weather
stations, installed by small government agencies, airports, and backyard
"That's another big draw for people too, they
can get very local weather from just down the street if somebody happens
to have a weather station on their block."
stations are 12X12 cylinders with rain gauges and topped by cups that
rotate with the wind. They run about $200-$700. Masters has a wireless
installation in his Highland backyard. From it he gets minute-by-minute
uploads of the temperature, dew point, wind direction and speed, UV
light levels, and pressure. It's a big step up from his boyhood pre-web
days, when he had to go outside to take manual observations from his
"Bad weather always looks worse through a window."
The site has become a weather Wiki of
sorts, where in addition to feeding weather station data, users can
upload their own digital weather photos (over 1.3 million and counting).
And anyone who wants to can contribute a pertinent blog.
Masters has a large following as Weather Underground's chief blogger; his posts
sometimes draw thousands of comments a day. This time of year he posts
every other day, usually on weather and climate matters, but he's right
there when upheavals occur. On the morning of our interview he's just
covered the air trajectories of radioactive plumes coming from a nuclear
reactor affected in Japan's earthquake.
remain his forte. During peak season in August through October Masters
will blog daily, even multiple times, if a big storm is churning.
He's also written extensively on climate change
with focused concern on drought, flooding, and the rise of world-wide
sea-levels. Climate change theory is a highly politicized field, he
says, and it's up against "probably the best-funded PR effort in history
against science – done by some of the same people who brought us the
tobacco industry's campaign against the science showing that tobacco was
Needless to say, after posting his conclusions,
bundles of hate mail get dropped into his lap. But the evidence, Masters
believes, is unmistakable.
"The planet is warming. Pretty much
nobody disputes that. Even the skeptics," he argues. "And it is warming
in ways that can only be the case if human caused emissions of
heat-trapping gases are responsible. Warming is greater at the poles
than on the rest of the planet. There's cooling in the stratosphere
going on which you wouldn't expect to see if it were some other cause.
The spring is coming earlier each year, species are moving northwards in
response to the warming, and the nighttime and wintertime warming is
more than the daytime and summertime warming. All these factors are
consistent with what you'd expect to see from a warming planet that's
due to human effect."
On a lighter note, can weather strike that
balance between theory and amusement? The ideal movie, he says, hasn't
been made yet. "Twister
was certainly entertaining, but pretty lousy science in there. Day After Tomorrow
[was] pretty lousy science on climate change, though it was entertaining."
is currently working on a fiction project about a flood on the
Mississippi River. He plans to post short chapters on his blog and
measure the reaction. The working title is Mississippi Rising
and it's set in the little-known Old River Control Structure, a
floodgate system built by the Army Corps of Engineers at the convergence
of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers in Louisiana.
Mississippi very badly wants to carve a new path down to the Gulf of
Mexico," he begins. The story promises a what-if scenario where Old Man
River changes course in a flood.
is] going to try and talk a little about how climate change has changed
the equation because now with a warmer world you have more moisture in
the atmosphere which can potentially cause heavier rains and bigger
floods," he warns. "And the current flood control system has been
designed with the previous climate in mind. Now that we're moving
towards a new climate we are going to see heavier rains and bigger
floods and the system isn't designed to handle that and will need to be
overhauled, or it will
fail in coming decades."
Movie material? He'll keep us posted.
fictional eagle may land this June, yet... he just hasn't been able to
escape the weather siren events of 2010 and 2011. He tried to get to the
story last spring, "...but, no
we had the [BP] oil spill and I had to write about that every day –
where the oil might go. Then we had a really busy hurricane season – not
necessarily in the U.S."
This year has brought a howling winter
to the U.S.; flooding in Australia, South Africa, and Sri Lanka; and
Japan's 9.0 Richter Scale earthquake and the tsunami and radioactive
fallout. "Particularly this past year, it's been ridiculous," he says.
Where in the world does he get away from the weather?
don't think you can beat the Big Island of Hawaii," he laughs. "It's
pretty ideal." His favorite place of refuge is Arizona's mountains and
Grand Canyon. "They have pretty good weather there too."
Other than vacation, work sometimes takes him away from satellite and radar screens. He spent a week at the National Hurricane Center
last year as a visiting scientist. And once a term you can catch him
delivering guest lectures for Dr. Perry Samson's class at U-M. The
course topic: "Extreme Weather".
Dr. Masters' Recommended Reading List:
- General meteorology: The AMS Weather Book: The Ultimate Guide to America's Weather by Jack Williams
- College 101-level textbook: Meteorology Today by Don Aherns
- Weather records: Extreme Weather by Chris Burt
- Hurricanes: Divine Wind by Kerry Emanuel
- Tornadoes: Tornado Alley by Howard Bluestein
- Climate change science: The Rough Guide to Climate Change by Robert Henson
- Climate change politics: Climate Cover-up by James Hoggan
Tanya Muzumdar is no fair-weather friend. She is the assistant editor for Concentrate and Metromode. Her previous article was "MASTERMIND: Michael Daugherty".Send your comments here.