It takes a tornado of a personality and rare courage to attempt to foretell the future, especially when it comes to weather. A snowboarder who gets lukewarm rain instead of fresh powder or a disc golfer who encounters unexpected lightning on a treeless fairway can rain down upon the unfortunate forecaster a torrent of invective harsher than a hurricane when the elements don’t behave as predicted.
That’s just the risk that Renaissance man Ray Russell has taken for over 20 years as the founder of Ray’s Weather Center, Western North Carolina’s leading local source for forecasts.
A computer science professor at Appalachian State University, Russell holds a doctorate in the field from the Georgia Institute of Technology, has been ordained as a Church of Christ minister, served as a member of the N.C. House of Representatives and is a certified running coach. But as a meteorologist, he’s entirely self-taught. A childhood fascination with the weather led to him reading tomes of books on the subject, and when his wife gifted him a weather station for Christmas in 1998, he began streaming weather data to his personal ASU faculty page to predict winter snowstorms for Boone.
The accuracy of his forecasts became a thing of local legend, and eventually his passion project blossomed into a regional colossus that feeds on weather data from across WNC 24/7. Russell spoke with Xpress on a beautiful fall day about the growth of Ray’s Weather Center over the years, how forecasters handle the area’s tricky topography and what weather sayings carry a grain of truth.
How has Ray’s Weather Center grown over the years?
The company formally started in the summer of 2000. I took it totally private and away from the university, and it has lived a life of its own from there.
Ray’s Weather hopefully has become a style of getting weather forecasting done. It’s accurate, but it’s also a human production, not an automated bureaucratic output everyday. We have five meteorologists and a schedule of people doing the updates.
The real challenge has become the sustaining and building of the business. When we started doing this, no one had heard of web advertising. I took complaints about there being advertising on the website — boy, has that come a long way! Weather is easy compared to competing in the modern internet market.
I still think we’re the most widely read media outlet that originates in WNC. We just put stuff out there; I don’t spend a lot of time counting.
Why are your forecasts different from those of national weather outlets?
A national weather site has sparse data that is made up, not real data. They are interpolating — it’s a guess from actual data. That might work in Oklahoma, where it’s flat, but you can’t do that in a mountain environment and get away with the fact that people don’t know any better.
If you go to big commercial sites, they are totally produced by computers without any human intervention. Good forecasts start with good meterologists, and we have five.
Anybody in the business of forecasting anything is going to be wrong sometimes. What we try to do with our forecast is to say, “It’s going to rain.” We don’t say what percent. We use terms like widely scattered and isolated, and then we give the time frame: afternoon and overnight, etc. We try to put out a specific forecast that is actionable, that people can actually plan their days around.
WNC has many microclimates, and the weather can be vastly different from place to place, even when they are short distances apart. Why is that, and how do you deal with the challenge?
The Blue Ridge on the eastern escarpment of the Appalachian chain is a major weather boundary. There is much more rain along the Blue Ridge: When you lift that air over the ridge, it produces more rain in that region. In the winter, you get more snow on the western side of the Appalachians. The spine of the Appalachians is right along the Tennessee and North Carolina border — that is a major geographical feature.
One of our challenges is that people struggle with geography. People don’t know the difference between the Blue Ridge and Western Spine. To really understand what’s going to happen weather-wise, you have to know.
We try to capture those kinds of things in the writing of the forecasts. Readers of our sites can say they really understand the geography. We do our best to blend readability and accuracy.
How is WNC’s weather being affected by climate change?
Certainly we are having more extreme weather events than before, and the extremes are more extreme. In the last 10 years, the Carolinas have had three 500-year floods. We’ve had one of the worst droughts, which burned down Gatlinburg and a lot of WNC. And snow is getting harder to come by; there has been a significant drop in the average snowfall since the 1980s.
Our weather is wetter overall. Daytime highs are not necessarily hotter, but our nighttime lows are warmer. Overall, there has been a steady drift to warmer weather over the last 10 or 20 years, but it’s very subtle. People that do trout fishing get it because it results in warmer stream waters.
All of these things are changing with climate change. It’s having a significant impact on agriculture and tourism. I tell any business, if you don’t have a plan for how your business will go forward with climate change, it’s going to have an impact.
Do you still love weather as much as you did when you first started out?
I do. Forecasting weather is one of the most multidisciplinary things: You have to know about chemistry and physics, but you also have to know about people — and to produce a good weather forecast, what they need to know. It’s our one common experience. All of us are affected by the weather somehow. It’s our common challenge; on a day like today, it’s our common joy.
Are there any local weather myths that you’d like to address?
So many weather sayings have a seed of truth in them. Even things I’ve heard other people make fun of, there is often a seed of truth in there.
“See a ring around the moon, and you’ll have rain in 48 hours.” That’s one I’ve heard all my life. If you have a front coming in, the first part of that is high-level ice crystals. That’s what produces the ring around the moon.
“It’s too cold to snow.” Technically it never gets too cold to snow, but when someone says that, what they’re really observing is that arctic high pressure has taken so much control that it’s forced the moisture to the south. It’s hard to snow when that happens, because cold air just overpowers everything else.
There are other weather myths that are fun conversation pieces, for entertainment purposes only. Punxsutawney Phil — the groundhog is wrong more often than it is right. That is one we can debunk without offending any of our local residents.