Eight decades after issuing its first undergraduate degrees, Penn State’s meteorology program might just be the global leader in turning weather-obsessed young people into world-class forecasters.
It’s early Saturday evening in Raleigh, N.C., and just down the street from the state capitol, a small pack of passersby has stopped in front of the street-level studio window of television station ABC11. On the other side of the glass is a bespectacled young man in a pressed gray suit and blue tie. His name is Robert Johnson. He is 25 years old, the youngest meteorologist the station has ever hired. Briskly and skillfully, Johnson ’19 EMS navigates through his three-minute weather report, decoding the radar images and explaining what the advancing high-pressure system means, letting his viewers—at home and on the street— know what they can expect for their Sunday. “Temperatures tumble tonight,” Johnson says, weaving in one of his trademark phrases. He reports with clarity and energy, and the sort of enthusiasm that suggests he is living his dream.
Which, in fact, he is.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Johnson became enthralled with weather at age 13, when he was selected to be part of a curriculum called Hurricane’s Outreach Program to Educate Scientists (HOPES), an inner-city initiative of Glenn “Hurricane” Schwartz ’72 EMS, a longtime, and immensely popular, TV meteorologist in Philadelphia. Johnson attended classes one Saturday a month in eighth and ninth grades. At the end of the program, Schwartz rewarded his students with a visit to State College and Penn State’s Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science. Headquartered in Walker Building at University Park, the Meteo program, as it is commonly known, is among the oldest, and most venerable, departments of its kind in the nation. Johnson was awed by the professional-grade TV studio, the weather data gathering procedures, and the expertise of the professors he met, among them Jon Nese ’83, ’85 MS, ’89 PhD EMS, a TV meteorologist himself and associate head of Penn State’s undergraduate program. Most of all, he was mesmerized by the electronic wall with weather maps, radar, and all manner of data, changing in real time. For the first time, Johnson was surrounded by people who thought weather was every bit as cool as he did.
“I just found it all so fascinating, and it stuck with me,” Johnson says. “I already knew that I wanted to be a meteorologist, but that trip told me where I wanted to go to school to make that happen.” He enrolled four years later, graduated with his meteorology degree in 2019, then got hired by ABC11 almost as fast as you can walk from Walker Building to Old Main.
The study of weather dates at least to 340 B.C., when Aristotle published a treatise called “Meteorologica,” a term derived from the Greek word meteoron (literally “things high up”). Humans have been looking skyward ever since—and, at Penn State, since the institution’s founding: The first course catalog for the Farmers’ High School of Pennsylvania, published in 1859, included a course in geography and meteorology that “concentrated on the implications of temperature, precipitation, and other meteorological factors on crop production.”
The formal meteorology program at Penn State began humbly, in 1934, with the arrival of Helmut Landsberg, a meteorologist and geophysicist from the University of Frankfurt in Germany. Landsberg taught a one-credit course on weather forecasting to 23 students. The program began conferring degrees in 1942 and has since granted about 4,500 of them. One of the department’s most seminal influences was Charles Hosler ’47, ’48 MS, ’51 PhD EMS, the dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (which includes the Department of Meteorology) from 1965 to 1985. Now 98 years old and still living in State College, Hosler was a Navy meteorologist who flew reconnaissance missions in the South Pacific during World War II and joined the faculty after the war, forging a close relationship with then-Penn State president Milton Eisenhower, and also with Milton’s brother Dwight, who was president of the United States. Hosler’s connections with the Eisenhowers did much to elevate the department’s visibility in its formative stages.
In a typical year, Penn State Meteo includes 200 undergraduate students and 70 graduate students, all of them taught by more than 30 faculty members in five main courses of study: environmental meteorology, weather risk management, weather forecasting and communications, atmospheric science, and a general option, which affords students the flexibility to customize their academic pursuits. “We pretty much cover all the bases with our faculty,” says David Stensrud ’85 MS, ’92 PhD EMS, the department chair. “Severe weather, global circulation patterns, oceanography, tropical storms, climate change, microphysics, weather risk—we have this rich faculty who do everything, and I think it’s that breadth of expertise that really benefits both the students and the faculty interactions, too.”
Paul Markowski ’96 EMS is an internationally renowned tornado expert and the department’s associate head of the graduate program. He was named a distinguished professor in 2021, one of only 13 faculty members so honored that year at University Park. Among his recently published pieces, in Monthly Weather Review, was “What Is the Intrinsic Predictability of Tornadic Supercell Thunderstorms?” Markowski is a mesoscale meteorologist, meaning that his focus is principally on atmospheric phenomena that are between 10 and 1,000 kilometers in size. While much of his own research is aimed at more accurately predicting when and where tornadoes will strike, he believes his work is sharpened by the level of meteorological discourse throughout the department.
“It makes me a better scientist being surrounded by people with very different interests than me,” Markowski says. “I can find two or three people to talk storms with, but the other 70 or 80 percent of the faculty actually speak a bit of a different language. They work in atmosphere chemistry or cloud physics and specialties like that, and that’s a good thing. Sometimes, as a scientist, if you work in a hyper-specialized lab setting surrounded by the same 10 people all the time and they are all focused on one little problem, after five years in that setting nobody can understand anything they are saying except the 10 people in the room.”
Virtually all department members—faculty and students alike—have a fascination with weather that borders on obsession, and it typically traces back to an event in their childhood. Markowski was a fifth grader in the Harrisburg area when 19 tornadoes descended on central and western Pennsylvania. He can tell you the exact date: May 31, 1985. He was watching Superman II on TV when the local news station broke in to report on the unprecedented outbreak—one that resulted in 75 fatalities and remains the deadliest tornado event in the state’s history.
Delián Colón-Burgos is a senior from Cayey de Muesas, a mountain town in central Puerto Rico. The president of the Penn State chapter of the American Meteorological Society, she remembers getting a school assignment in third grade that called for her to prepare an imaginary weather report, complete with data and forecast details. Colón-Burgos named it Tropical Storm Dana, after her sister. She became smitten with all the granular work that goes into real weather reports, and after living through Hurricane Maria, which ravaged Puerto Rico in 2017 and left her family without power for three months, she knew she wanted to devote her career to storm preparedness. Her plan is to get a Ph.D. in tropical meteorology and work at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, where she has already interned.
“After seeing all the devastation [from Maria], experiencing it for myself, and knowing what my family and so many others went through, I was like, OK, there’s so much work that needs to be done to research these storms and the impact that they can have,” Colón-Burgos says.
Colón-Burgos and many of her fellow students spend a good portion of their time in the Joel N. Myers Weather Center, on the sixth floor of Walker. Named after benefactor Myers ’61, ’63 MS, ’71 PhD EMS, the founder and CEO of AccuWeather, the largest private forecasting enterprise in the world (see sidebar, p. 39), the center is a bustling hub of activity complete with an electronic wall map—the same one that excited Robert Johnson—a computer lab, classroom and editing bays, and a student cafe. It is a destination for students who are collaborating on a project or simply want to chill after an intense day of schoolwork. According to Colón-Burgos, the weather center helps to cultivate a collaborative, supportive culture in the department that sets it apart from other majors that lean more toward ultra competitiveness. Bill Syrett ’83, ’87 MS EMS, director of the Myers Weather Center, says that is quite by design and has to do with the abiding passion most students have for their studies. You don’t have to spend much time around the Walker Building before you hear the expression “weather weenie,” a term of endearment regularly invoked by students and faculty who have an almost bottomless interest in weather.
“A lot of us are ‘different’ people,” Syrett says with a smile. “I can’t see a group of accounting students coming in and saying, ‘Oooh, look at that balance sheet.’ We kind of get excited by weather extremes. I am 61 years old. If there’s a snowstorm approaching, I still can’t sleep at night. Most of us became weenies when we were young and a big storm got us interested.”
Pursuing a meteorology degree is among the most rigorous academic undertakings on campus. Course requirements include calculus, chemistry, physics, statistics, and computer programming. The first two years of study are similar to what an engineering or physics major would study, and then in the subsequent two years, students can tunnel into a specialty, such as weather forecasting and communications, which is among the most popular options in the department and the one that aspiring TV meteorologists such as Johnson choose. He’s one of about 150 Penn State Meteo graduates working in broadcast meteorology around the U.S., making the program one of the most prolific providers of on-air meteorologists in the country.
A key element of that output is the Campus Weather Service, a student-run club that celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2022, making it the oldest organization of its kind in the U.S. Students who join Campus Weather Service (CWS) help produce three forecasts daily for radio clients across 10 regions of Pennsylvania. CWS also provides forecasts for The Daily Collegian, giving students valuable hands-on experience.
“I started getting reps right away, in my freshman year,” Johnson says. “You have four years to work on your craft.”
And then there is Weather World, a 15-minute television program that is produced in a studio on the fifth floor of Walker Building and is distributed Monday through Friday on the local public broadcasting station and statewide on the Pennsylvania Cable Network. A meteorologist oversees the production of every Weather World edition; to be on camera, students are required to go through an audition, undergo staff training, and complete advanced level courses in forecasting and communications. Taken together, the offerings both in class and in studio make Penn State’s meteorology department uniquely comprehensive, according to Kevin Appleby, a senior from Rockaway, N.J., and the president of CWS.
“I can’t speak for any other school, but there’s a reason why so many TV meteorologists come out of Penn State, and it’s because there are so many opportunities to learn,” Appleby says.
A number of factors contribute to State College’s role as a meteorological epicenter. On one side of town, you have AccuWeather’s global headquarters, a sprawling enterprise that reaches hundreds of millions of people around the world with its forecasts. Across town is the local office of the National Weather Service (NWS), a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—an agency whose stated mission is to “provide weather, water and climate data, forecasts, warnings, and impact-based decision support services for the protection of life and property and enhancement of the national economy.” If you guessed that this makes central Pennsylvania a prime spot to study meteorology, you win an anemometer. Both AccuWeather and the NWS offer significant internship opportunities for students, and an outlet for students to explore other aspects of meteorology they might not have considered. AccuWeather alone has dozens of Penn State graduates on its forecast team. Guest lecturers with various meteorological specialties are frequent visitors to the department. Right on the grounds of Walker Building are the NWS’ official data collection sites for temperature, wind readings, rainfall, and snowfall. Weather data collection has gone on without interruption at Penn State since 1893—dating to the time when the university was an agricultural college.
“State College is truly a special place for weather weenies,” says Nese, the department’s associate head of undergraduate studies. “You have AccuWeather. You have the National Weather Service. You have a department that is an academic powerhouse. Who wouldn’t want to be here?”
Weather weenies tend to be a certain kind of person, says department chair Stensrud. “It’s a very public service–oriented discipline. It’s a science, but it’s also a science in service to society, very clearly. And there’s just something about those kinds of students that I find to be really quite special. [Their perspective] is that ‘I am here because I love the weather and I think it’s really interesting, but I also am doing this to help others.’”
The public-service aspect to meteorology can take any number of forms, from the micro to the macro. A gloomy weekend forecast might mean you need to reschedule an outdoor party. An oncoming blizzard might dictate that you leave early on a business trip. After getting a comprehensive forecast for the route they’re flying, a pilot could alter their flight plan to avoid unsettled weather. On the macro end, long-term changes in climate may impact sea level, water runoff, crop viability, farming techniques, and even how—and where—to proceed with multimillion- dollar infrastructure installations. Going forward, Stensrud believes, climate science is going to affect every aspect of our lives—one reason why Penn State’s Ph.D. students can now get a dual degree in it.
Johnson’s personal radar isn’t so much on climate shifts in the coming decades as on providing viewers with a clear, accurate forecast for the next three to five days in the Research Triangle region of North Carolina. Moments before he goes on air on ABC11, Johnson is at his desk in the weather center, just steps away from the map he’ll stand before as he delivers his forecast. He makes a final pass through his graphics, ensuring that they’re in proper sequence to allow for a seamless presentation. When he’s done, Johnson looks in the mirror, straightens his tie, and steps in front of the camera, in view of the onlookers who have stopped on Fayetteville Street to watch. He looks like he’s exactly where he belongs.
Wayne Coffey is the proud father of a Penn State alum, the author of more than 30 books, and not anyone you would want to turn to for a reliable forecast.