It’s Not Just the Weather Anymore: An Interview with Dr. Louis Uccellini

March 18, 2013 | Jean Phillips

“Go, Badgers!”

In just two words Dr. Louis Uccellini, the recently appointed Director of the National Weather Service (NWS), conveyed his longstanding connections and affection for his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As a student in the 1970s, Uccellini was inspired by his mentors, especially professors Charles E. Anderson and Donald R. Johnson of the UW-Madison’s Department of Meteorology (known today as the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences). Later, collaborations with researchers at the Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC) gave him the opportunity to put theory into practice. Uccellini has since dedicated his life’s work to improving weather forecasts. Now as NWS Director, he sees new challenges and opportunities for the future of the discipline.

louis uccellini

Louis W. Uccellini, Ph.D.
Photo credit: NOAA

We interviewed Dr. Uccellini in February, just weeks after his appointment. He shared stories from his time at the UW-Madison, as well as his thoughts about the science of weather forecasting and just what it means to be a ‘weather-ready nation.”

Despite the many advances in our nation’s ability to forecast severe weather events with precision and accuracy, injuries and death as a result of severe weather remain an unsettling fact. Communicating well with decision makers and the public is critical. Unfortunately, “we still have situations in which the message we give is not equal to the message received.” Using Hurricane Sandy as a successful example, Uccellini noted how the forecasts focused on impacts and extent, rather than on whether or not the storm system would make landfall as a hurricane or post-tropical storm.

Collaboration among many groups is key to continued improvements in forecasts. Uccellini commented on the need for the research and operational communities to work together and noted how Wisconsin is “usually at the front of the line in terms of being able to affect the transition from research into operations”; specifically, Uccellini mentioned SSEC’s satellite research and work with the National Hurricane Center. According to Dr. Uccellini, the NWS relies on university research programs, like those at the UW, for improvements and advancements in technologies related to enhancing forecast skill.

In addition, Uccellini urged those involved in weather forecasting to look outside their discipline. Weather impacts every facet of human life, from the spread of disease to the economy to agriculture and beyond. Taking an interdisciplinary approach, examining more than just the atmosphere, but also looking at oceans, land surface, the cryosphere, biological and hydrological systems, chemistry, Uccellini maintains that forecasts can only become more accurate. “We also know that to make predictions, it’s not just the weather anymore.”

In fact, Uccellini expects many more groups to work together in the future, to leverage one another’s efforts, given the current economic difficulties that may result in a gap in satellite coverage. Maintaining the availability of satellite data in real time, sharing this data, and a free flow of information are fundamental to the global satellite observing system. SSEC, and its founder, Verner Suomi, made the case early on for such collaboration, and Uccellini is keen to see it continue.

Despite the budget challenges and need to improve communication, Uccellini is optimistic about the future, seeing opportunities for growth. Further, Uccellini sees the ultimate goal of saving lives and mitigating property loss as a worthwhile venture extending far beyond the science. It seems only fitting that this philosophy mirrors SSEC’s mission for its research to be of benefit to all, serving, too, as a perfect example of the Wisconsin Idea, the UW-Madison’s mission to “improve people’s lives beyond the classroom.”

Read the full transcript of the interview.

About Louis Uccellini:

Louis Uccellini was appointed the 16th director of the National Weather Service in February 2013. Prior to this appointment, he led the National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) for 14 years. Uccellini is a fellow of the American Meteorological Society and served as the society’s president in 2012.

by Leanne Avila and Jean Phillips