Wunderground.com’s Jeff Masters: From ‘Mad Scientist Club’ to Leading Internet Site

ANN ARBOR, MI. — When Jeff Masters was 10, he helped launch the “mad scientist club” in his Birmingham, Michigan, school, writing a 100-page thesis based on observations from his telescope.

By the time he was 12, he was diligently tracking the strength of wind gusts from a weather station he had set up in his backyard. The Midwest’s extremely variable climate conditions intrigued him. “I was always interested in weather,” he says.

It’s the kind of story sure to sound familiar to many of today’s meteorologists, weathercasters … and just plain “weather geeks,” a term they use endearingly of course: Weather gets into their blood early in life, and it’s something they take with them long into their careers, whether specifically weather-related or not.

Wunderground.com’s Jeff Masters’ dream job — ‘the truth’ and presenting what he sees as the best science.

Today, at age 50, all-things-weather are his job and his passion. A co-founder of The Weather Underground (wunderground.com), Masters created most of the software that formats the National Weather Service data used on the website, and also the imagery on the tropical page. And as a blogger on that site, he’s also become a committed advocate for the need to address human-caused climate change.

As Masters sits before a huge screen displaying maps from his site in his Ann Arbor office, he’s dressed in stereotypical scientist garb: a casual shirt, khaki shorts, and knee-high white tube socks with black dress shoes. Photographs of two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hurricane hunter airplanes hang on the wall, along with a certificate recognizing his service there.

From College Degrees to Hurricane Hugo Scare

After receiving his bachelors and masters degrees in meteorology from the University of Michigan, he says, he was “burnt out from school.” On a lark, he applied for a job with the hurricane hunters as a flight meteorologist for NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center. From 1986 to 1990, he spent his time flying into the eye of hurricanes.

“It was a dream job” that satisfied his huge fascination with weather, he said: “What better way to seek out the most intense storms and most interesting weather phenomena?”

He relished the thrill of the experience, but a near brush with death, flying into September 1989’s Hurricane Hugo, gave him a fresh perspective. The team had underestimated the weather, expecting a weaker storm. “We shouldn’t have been in the eyewall of a category five hurricane,” Masters says, thinking back and adding that they hadn’t paid adequate attention to the warning signs.

The plane’s engine caught fire and there was extreme turbulence. But the pilot was able to keep control of the plane, allowing it to land safely. Masters decided that would be his last flight, and says now that he still suffers from lingering effects of the “traumatizing” experience.

Wunderground.com — 10 to 11 Million Page Views a Day

He returned to the University of Michigan in 1990 to get his PhD and developed an internet-based weather-education project, the precursor to The Weather Underground, which he co-founded with Perry Samson, his PhD advisor. The Weather Underground launched in 1995, becoming the first commercial internet weather service, and among the first using real-time features of the internet for weather education. Today, it’s the 80th largest site on the internet, getting between 10- and 11-million page views a day and 15-million unique users a month.

Masters considers this another dream job, not only creating the programming but expanding his role to blog and generate content for the website.

Masters reads plenty of other blogs, and is a fan in particular of John Cook’s blogs at skepticalscience.com/. He also frequents realclimate.org, climateprogress.org, and desmogblog.com, which he thinks does well at unveiling climate deniers’ public relations campaigns intended to counter climate change science.

Masters says his blogs don’t “trash people” or question their motivations. “I’m just speaking the truth as I see it,” and presenting the best science, he says.

Masters considers himself different from most meteorologists, many of whom he says are unreasonably skeptical of climate change science. He says he thinks their skepticism stems in part from bachelors degree meteorology students’ not being required to study climatology or climate science as part of their formal degree requirements.

Masters says he believes that the conclusions of the IPCC report are “genuine, valid, and probably understated.” And he is critical of what he sees as well orchestrated and well funded climate misinformation campaigns.

“They’re able to persuade even intelligent people with a background in meteorology” that climate change isn’t occurring, he said. “It’s going to be a terrible wake-up call when the climate becomes unstable, and we’ll kick ourselves for being resistant to cutting our use of fossil fuels.”

He’s shared these views in his blogs, not surprisingly leading to hundreds of “hate e-mails” a year. Critics call him biased and chastise him for defending scientists named or involved in last fall’s hacked e-mails controversy at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. While he respects the right of these people to voice their point of view, he doesn’t pull punches: “The ignorance and greed that human society is showing in this matter will be to our ultimate detriment and possible destruction,” he says.

He urges his 14-year-old daughter to educate herself on climate change. “It will be the defining issue of their generation,” he says, though he admits these pleas fall on unconcerned ears for now, as she still has “one foot in the world of childhood.”

Masters works two days a week from his rural home, a half hour from his Ann Arbor office. During the hurricane season, he works every day. He’s financially stable enough to retire, but he says he has no plans of slowing down. Though marriage and a child and that earlier Hurricane Hugo scare have tamed any desires to fly into the eye of a hurricane, he says there is much left to do.

“There’s too much of a need for my skills now,” he says. He plans to continue being “a spokesperson for the best science we have on what the planet is doing and where’s it is headed.”

Julie Halpert

Julie Halpert, who has covered the environment for more than two decades for national publications, is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, Mi. She is a regular contributor to The Yale Forum. (E-mail: julie@yaleclimatemediaforum.org, Twitter: @julhalps)
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8 Responses to Wunderground.com’s Jeff Masters: From ‘Mad Scientist Club’ to Leading Internet Site

  1. Dan L. says:

    The Republican party is on the verge of regaining control of the Senate with candidates who, every one, deny the reality of anthropogenic climate change. Jeff Masters is one of the few sane voices in this madhouse of science denial in which the USA is losing itself.

    Good on ya’, Jeff. Keep up the fight, boy, no matter how dark the current hour seems: all’s not lost, yet.

  2. Laurie Bowen says:

    The Global Climate Change Debate

    Climate change, Volcanoes, Earthquakes, Floods, Droughts, Tsunamis, Tornado’s, Hurricanes, Blizzards etc . . . have been a matter of living or dying since time began . . . . . the search for the cause other than . . . “We (you) all made God Angry”. . . gave rise to the discipline we call Meteorology today . . . just as Astronomy had it’s roots in “Astrology” and Chemistry had it’s roots in “Alchemy”. None of the science’s were considered a discipline until Copernicus, Galilao, Newton . . . . Einstein etc . . . were finally accepted.

    Basically, and very over simplified, I surmise: most of Climate change is caused by the fact that Earth hurls around the sun as a part of our solar system. We, in error, think ‘we’ are very big and very powerful . . . . . when in fact, compared to the big “scheme” of physics, we are really quite small . . . . especially when you consider just the size of the milky way . . . . . and smaller and smaller when looking at the ‘scheme’ of the entire universe. When you look at it that way . . . (from another dimensional perspective). . . .we may just be part of “itty, bitty, teensey, weensy” little speck that is part of a “yellow polka dot bikini”. . . . hardly and barely noticeable to anyone except maybe . . .’god’. . . .

    To flip the perspective again . . . ever notice what a family of beavers can do to a river in just the right place . . . . . then notice what happens in spring . . . . if there is an extra heavy blizzard . . . even they know they have to rebuild all over again.

    Humans can and have had even more profound effect because we seem to leave to much ‘garbage’ behind.

    Everything we have came from ‘earth’ . . . and CAN be turned back to ‘earth’.

    For example, the red sludge in Hungary today is a byproduct of refining bauxite with research and chemical engineering can and should be reconstituted into a stable composite itself. Manure is turned into fertilizer . . . you get the picture.

    I pro-ject (forecast) that when the Meteorology and Astronomy “marry” ‘we’ will not accurately be able to project future “Climate Changes”. As well the other disciplines like chemistry & bio-chemistry etc. . must “co-operate” or ‘we’ will not accurately be able to adapt to future “Climate Changes” well because we spent more resources trying to change something that is beyond our control

    Essentially, the climate debate for; “It being all our fault”, . . will continue for a long time simply because of superstition, religious fundamentalism, the ignorance of the many, and lack of parochial earth & science education. . . . . (You must remember the earth didn’t “become a “round” planet” until after Magellan and Columbus. Heck! . . . they didn’t even know the America’s existed. . . . . Socrates story of “Atlantis” was a “myth” of epic proportions . . . . even though someone was trading with “Peru” some 1,000 of years before the earth became round and not the center of the universe. . . . . Blah Blah Blah. . . .I could go on and on and on.)

    Finally, I assert Global Warming debate due to man made causes was a cover for a massive regressive taxation scheme via Cap-N-Trade proposals. These kinds of CON’s have gone on since the beginning of societies and will last for as long as there are people willing to jump on that “bandwagon” or are forced to join that “party”. For now this CON has played itself out . . . and all that money . . . is gone. Ah . . but gone where?

    ‘Anyway’. . . Maybe we would consider expanding our horizons . . . . Just remember . . . the famous last words of Socrates were. . . . . . . “I drank what?”

    The answer to life . . . the world . . . and everything is really 4 too!

  3. John Marshall says:

    It is not climate change which is the problem. This has been happening for 4.6Ba but what is causing it now. There is no data proving that humans are causing what is perceived as climate change today.

  4. Roald A says:

    When Masters says “he is critical of what he sees as well orchestrated and well funded climate misinformation campaigns”, is he speaking of the same accusers making that claim who are described in the article at the following web link? “Smearing Global Warming Skeptics” http://www.americanthinker.com/2010/07/smearing_global_warming_skepti.html

  5. Orson says:

    Masters says he believes that the conclusions of the IPCC report are “genuine, valid, and probably understated.”
    OK. I have MSc-level training in environmental science – have lived 20 years in Boulder, Colorado. atmos sci central if there ever was one – and I don’t see the incontrovertable evidence Master’s apparently does. SHOW ME THE MONEY, honey!

  6. Mike B. says:

    Why don’t we just acknowledge that the self-anointed so-called “environmentalists” among us all have one thing in common—utter disdain for their fellow humans. Let’s admit that, at its core, environmentalism is not a science, it’s a quasi-religion based on the dogma that the earth is passively benign and gentle and people are, as Masters believes, “greedy and ignorant,” and a scourge on the planet. I have yet to run into an environmentalist’s argument that doesn’t boil down to “People are THE problem.”

    Think for a moment about the astounding hubris it takes to believe that we mere humans have the ability to control global climate! How interesting that a weather expert like Masters, who surely knows how impossible it is to control even local weather (or, for that matter, a single storm like a Cat 5 hurricane!), is so willing to believe that control over the planet’s climate is, at this moment in geologic history, within mankind’s puny grasp. But then religion is like that—it permits and actually encourages suspension of reason, which is exactly what is needed to accept the factually unsupportable myth of anthropogenically-induced climate change, the only support for which comes from anthropogenically-contrived computer models.

    Just once I would like to see a climate change believer like Masters explain why it’s OK to ignore (and never even mention) the fact that 95% of greenhouse gas is water vapor, which is 5 times more potent and thousands of times more abundant in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. I would like to see a climate change zealot like Masters explain why all his focus is on the least potent greenhouse gas (CO2 has a global warming potential, GWP, of 1.0. No other GHG is lower.) Or, more accurately, I would like to see one of the zealots admit that the only reason they target CO2 is because it is a by-product of combustion, and that gaining control over combustion, notably fossil fuel combustion, would yield control over everything that makes modern society function.

    If the earth’s climate were really their concern, why wouldn’t the true believers take aim at water vapor, the truly dominant greenhouse gas? To paraphrase Orson, “Follow the Money!” (and the Power.)

  7. Mike B. says:

    Correction: Water vapor in the atmosphere is “only” about a 90-100 times more abundant than CO2.

  8. Denis Ables says:

    For those who want to gain some perspective on how insignificant current climate change is, see my google doc at: