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Austin weathercasters can take the heat

Gary Dinges
gdinges@statesman.com
Jim Spencer works on his forecast at KXAN, where he reports the weather straight from his desk. He and fellow Austin meteorologists Mark Murray, Troy Kimmel and Scott Fisher are scrutinizing data these days to find a hint of rain. Kimmel says, 'I don't believe in giving people false hope.'

It's one of the hottest summers on record.

Extreme drought conditions persist statewide.

And we're all pretty darn miserable.

Austin's TV weathercasters say there's no end in sight.

"I believe we're stuck in neutral for the time being," said KTBC's Scott Fisher.

"It's a really vicious cycle," said KXAN's Jim Spencer. "A drought makes the heat wave worse, and the heat wave makes the drought worse."

KEYE's Troy Kimmel, who also serves as senior lecturer and manager for the Weather and Climate Resource Center at the University of Texas, warns the worst could be yet to come.

"We're right in the middle of the hottest part of the summer," he said. "Usually early August is when we see the year's highest temperatures."

Fisher, Kimmel, Spencer and KVUE's Mark Murray report Central Texas is in need of about a foot of rain. Pray for an active hurricane season, they say. A tropical depression, tropical storm or hurricane that hits just the right spot along the Gulf Coast could bring the area much-needed relief.

"I believe there's the potential for a lot of tropical activity this season that could help Central Texas," Fisher said. "One significant rain event could nix the drought."

There's a catch, though.

"If we get 6 or 9 inches in three or four hours, it's going to run off and won't do us any good," Kimmel said. "What we'd need is for it to stall somewhere near Central Texas and give us a couple inches a day for three or four days straight."

And, of course, we could always see too much of a good thing.

"Most of the time, we break a drought with a flood," said Murray, who provides the weather forecasts found in the American-Statesman each day.

If Mother Nature doesn't cooperate before then, there's traditionally more precipitation in fall and winter. "We just have to keep our fingers crossed," Spencer said. "We will eventually get some rain."

How they do it

Austin's meteorologists start crafting their forecasts hours before they hit the air.

"Especially right now, the first thing I do each day is scan all the computer models, looking for any chance of rain," Murray said.

"It's a lot of map watching, a lot of numerical data," Fisher said. "You throw it all on the table and look at it to see what's moving and shaking."

Tweaks are made throughout the day as conditions change. The forecast you see first thing in the morning will almost always be slightly different than the one you see at day's end, they say.

"I strive to get it right every day," Fisher said. "I agonize over two or three degrees, because I want to be right 100 percent of the time."

This time of year presents a challenge, though. There are, of course, only so many ways you can tell viewers it's going to be hot and dry.

"It's definitely tough to keep things interesting, but I try to mix it up as much as I can," Murray said. "Someone brought in a thesaurus the other day, and I said, 'Hey, can I borrow that?'"

Don't shoot the messenger

Though most people understand Austin's meteorologists can't control the weather, that doesn't stop complaints from some viewers.

"I get some pretty funny emails," Spencer said. "Folks can get a little irritable at times."

One man recently told Spencer he smiled too much during his nightly forecasts, and Kimmel took some heat from a viewer whose neighborhood saw a very brief, isolated shower that skipped most of the Austin area. His forecast that day didn't include a chance of rain.

"I don't believe in giving people false hope," Kimmel said. "I'm very conservative with my forecasting. You've got to give me a really good reason to include a chance for precipitation."

Most of the feedback, though, is positive — even light-hearted at times.

"They keep encouraging me to work on my rain dance," Murray said.

"They know it's hot," Fisher said. "We're tough. We've gone through this before. They're just looking for a break."

gdinges@statesman.com; 912-5987

Temperature test

Sometimes they're right.

Sometimes they're not.

Being a weathercaster isn't exactly an easy job. Get it wrong, and the complaints flow in. Nail it, and no one seems to notice.

We watched four Austin TV stations — KTBC and KXAN at 5 p.m., and KEYE and KVUE at 6 p.m. — late last month, recording the forecasted high temperatures for Tuesday, July 19, through Saturday, July 23.

Those predicted highs were compared with the actual highs recorded by the National Weather Service at Camp Mabry in Central Austin. (Temperatures are also recorded each day at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.)

Each meteorologist started with a perfect score of 100 points for the week, and lost a point for each degree he was off over the course of the five days we selected. Missed it by five degrees on Thursday? Lose five points for the week.

KXAN's Jim Spencer wound up in the lead with a score of 90, with KVUE's Mark Murray not far behind with an 88.

This test is, of course, highly unscientific. (Don't hate us, guys. Please.) There are countless other conditions meteorologists include in their forecasts each day, including chances for rain. Temperatures were selected because they are the easiest to compare.

Meet the mets

In a city where TV personalities typically come and go, Austin's chief meteorologists are the exception. Three of them – KEYE's Troy Kimmel, KVUE's Mark Murray and KXAN's Jim Spencer – have been forecasting Central Texas weather for 20-plus years. Even KTBC's Scott Fisher, the new kid on the block, has logged more than a decade in Austin.