James Andersen of the Hanford National Weather Service
Mar 03, 2018 11:00AM
By Melissa Mendonca
Story by Melissa Mendonca
Photos by Gary Feinstein
IT WAS A SIMPLE GIFT on his eighth birthday that set James Andersen of the Hanford National Weather Service forecast office on his path of meteorology.
“My mother had given me an aneroid barometer. It measures air pressure,” he says. “I was always interested in science. It started with dinosaurs and space/astronomy. But from that point forward, it was all about weather.”
A few years later, his parents would further encourage him by arranging for him to meet famed meteorologist Tom Skilling of Chicago’s WTNG TV, opening doors that would later lead to a paid internship as a college student, all of which would help him land his dream position with the National Weather Service.
“My mom and dad were very willing to help me out whenever I had an interest in something,” says the now 40-year-old married father of three. “Basically, for me it was National Weather Service or bust. I just worked very hard to get that.”
It was a commitment to the government agency that brought Andersen and his family to the Central Valley, where the weather is more stable than the Midwest but as important to life and property as anywhere, especially in terms of crop protection and road safety. The agency has at least two forecasters on duty 24 hours a day, paying attention to weather models on four monitors. More will be called to duty in severe weather.
“The weather’s not as exciting as it would be in, say, Kansas or Oklahoma,” he says, but there are still plenty of things to watch out for and prepare the public. “We’ve had hailstorms that have hit and can cause a lot of damage to the citrus or any other crop. Also, in the winter we get cold. It can freeze here. Citrus crops can get very finicky in terms of temperature.”
Then there is the valley fog. Andersen is spearheading Operation Ground Cloud, a multi-agency public awareness campaign to educate on safety in dense fog conditions that includes Caltrans, California Highway Patrol, the media and school districts. “We want to prevent those pile-ups,” he says, noting that motorists should slow down, turn on their headlights and stay aware of weather conditions when driving in dense fog. “I love teaching people,” he says.
Indeed, at one point it seemed Andersen’s compass was pointing toward a career in education. He had a young family and knew he needed to grow beyond his job as a bowling alley mechanic, which had helped put him through school for an associate’s degree. He took up classes in elementary education and earth science at North Eastern Illinois University for a bachelor’s degree.
The earth science classes stole his interest and brought him back to his first love, however, sending him to Northern Illinois University for a second bachelor’s, this time from the meteorology program.
At this point the field was getting crowded. “A lot of people blame the movie ‘Twister,’” says Andersen with a laugh. “Once Twister came out, they wanted to be a meteorologist.
“In any calling there’s some sort of event or point in time that draws you to that lifestyle,” he adds. While Andersen’s was an aneroid barometer given to him at 8, it didn’t preclude him from the excitement of the movie. “I did get to do some storm chasing when I was in the Midwest,” he says. “I did that quite a bit and I liked it very much.”
Andersen stills pops in on his mentor, Tom Skilling, when he returns to Chicago to visit family. “He just reeks of enthusiasm for meteorology,” says Andersen. “I call him a weatherman’s weatherman. He doesn’t dumb it down for the public.”
There have been many changes in weather technology from Andersen’s first visit to the WNTG weather station as a 10 year old to what he found as an intern and finally, what he deals with now at the National Weather Service. “Now everything’s on computers,” he says, noting that printed difax maps no longer line the walls of the office.
He knows how valuable that technology is, however, considering that the Hanford station monitors weather conditions in Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. “We try to keep people informed about the weather changes because campers and hikers go up there by the thousands. That’s a lot of responsibility, because we want to make sure they’re safe.”
While the move to Hanford brought many changes from his family’s life in Chicago, Andersen laughs that he’s enjoyed bragging to friends back home that he has spent Christmas day in a short-sleeve shirt. “It’s warmer here,” he laughs. “I feel like I’m in the middle of a lot of good things.” •
Hanford National Weather Service