While not as well-known as weather forecasters on television, Jim Haywood and Stephanie Hengesbach share the same expertise. The meteorologists with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) work in the Air Quality Division to model the impact of air pollutants such as ozone across the state. Heard of Clean Air Action Days? Haywood and Hengesbach make the call to help protect public health when high ozone levels can adversely affect residents. MIEnvironment caught up with the weather wonks to ask them about their jobs for this Fast Five edition.
How do you use meteorology in your work at EGLE?
Haywood: The study of large- and small-scale air movement (meteorology is basically fluid physics where the fluid is air) helps us with forecasting the formation, movement, and magnitude of air pollutants. So, not only do we have to be proficient in meteorology, we have to have a good background in chemistry to understand how pollutants react in the atmosphere.
Hengesbach: Part of our job is to forecast the expected air pollution levels across our state. In order to do that, we first need to forecast the weather. Weather conditions are driving factors in how high or low pollution will be. After knowing the expected weather conditions, we determine how air pollution levels will be affected by those conditions.
What fascinates you about meteorology and how did you get into the business?
Jim Haywood: I enjoyed cloud watching, as a kid, and was fascinated by thunderstorms. I got my degree in meteorology from Penn State and went to work in a consulting firm as an air quality meteorologist. That experience led to my job as an air quality meteorologist for EGLE.
Stephanie Hengesbach: My fascination with meteorology started with fear. Thunderstorms terrified me as a child and I'd beg my parents to let me up from the dinner table at 6:15 each evening so I could watch the weather on TV. I received my degree in meteorology from Central Michigan University and took a job in Kentucky with the National Weather Service. I left the NWS to move home and get married, and after about five years as a computer programmer I was so happy to land this meteorologist job.
What tools do you use in your job to forecast air patterns?
Haywood: We rely a great deal on computer models, which we access through the internet. A lot is also intuition based on experience and history.
Hengesbach: We use the internet to evaluate computer forecast models. We also look historically at what has happened in the past with pollution levels during similar weather conditions.
Do people always ask you to forecast the weather?
Haywood: It happens quite frequently. If someone asks us to check the weather in advance of a trip or a vacation, we're glad to do that. If the weather is bad, we always get the blame! Interestingly enough, when the weather is great, we never get the credit!!!
Hengesbach: Yes, we get that a lot and we don’t mind helping out when people ask. It would be nice if with my meteorology degree I also received the ability to always be correct in my forecasts!
What are some of the more unusual weather phenomenon we see in Michigan?
Haywood: I would say the biggest thing is the interaction of our western counties and Lake Michigan, which is very unique. Not only does it cause unique snow and cloud issues during the winter, air quality is greatly affected. Dirty air from Chicago and northwest Indiana can cause some serious air quality issues, even up into the U.P.
Hengesbach: I feel the most unusual weather phenomenon is lake effect snows. It's so interesting how a certain fetch of wind over the lake waters can enhance snow so significantly where one area can quickly receive over a foot of snow, but another part of the same county doesn't see much accumulation.
Catch Jim and Stephanie talking about Clean Air Action Days in this EGLE video.