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After the Crazy Winter of '79, the Top U.S. Weatherman Warns: Spring Won't Be Any Picnic

updated 04/02/1979 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/02/1979 01:00AM

For the past few months it has seemed as if the world's climate was having a nervous breakdown. There were disastrous floods in Phoenix and Florida, seven and a half feet of snow in Chicago and a single February storm that buried Washington, D.C. under 24 inches. Even Palm Springs had freakish flurries. Northern Europe's snow cover averaged 50 percent above normal this winter, while temperatures in parts of the Soviet Union dropped 20 percent below average. In the Sahara it snowed for the first time in memory. Keeping an eye on all these weird happenings is Richard Hallgren, the new, 47-year-old director of the National Weather Service. Born just 30 miles from Punxsutawney, Pa.—where the ground hog ventures out every February 2—Hallgren has been a weather buff since boyhood. Between earning his bachelor's degree and Ph.D. in meteorology at Penn State, Hallgren served two years as an Air Force weather officer. He worked for IBM, was a scientific adviser in the Commerce Department and last February was appointed to his present job—just in time for Washington's unexpectedly heavy snowstorm which, to his chagrin, kept him marooned for two days. Now gearing up for spring, Hallgren talked with Judith Weinraub for PEOPLE.

Just how unusual was this past winter?

Anybody who lives in the Midwest will say the weather was crazy. If we ask that same question in Alabama, the answer is going to be no, it wasn't. The variability in the weather is enormous. A meteorologist just accepts that.

What kind of weather are we looking ahead to right now?

Blizzards, flash floods, tornadoes, you name it. We are going into a period—particularly in the Midwest and Southeast—where tornadoes become a big thing. We worry about flash floods—they are the biggest warning problem in the country today. By summer we move into the hurricane season. There are about 40 million Americans along the Gulf and the East Coast with great potential for loss of life.

Why are you particularly concerned about flash floods?

More than 100 lives a year are lost in them. In northern Illinois, Wisconsin and parts of Iowa and Minnesota we have five to nine inches of water locked up in snow. We know there are going to be floods this spring. Two additional things add to the seriousness: First, as the population increases, many cities have expanded into lower-lying, flood-prone areas. Secondly, more and more people are camping in scenic canyons. There, in a matter of minutes, a babbling brook can become a raging river.

Is the weather service mainly concerned with safety?

The most important thing we do is provide severe weather warnings to help save lives and reduce property loss. Of course, we also recognize that the weather service is used far more extensively in everyday life for planning rather routine activities. Five hundred million telephone calls are made every year by people checking the weather.

What kind of warnings do you put out?

Two kinds: One we call a watch. That means that severe weather is possible. If it is a tornado watch, the conditions are favorable for a tornado to develop. When we put out a tornado warning, that means that one has actually been sighted in the area.

How should a person react?

The tornado season runs through March, April, May and June. If you hear our tornado warning, or see anything that looks like one coming, go to your basement or to the lowest part of the house and get under something sturdy. One of the safest places is an interior bathroom because it often has double construction to handle the pipes. If you're in a car, get out, go to a low spot and lie face down.

What about thunderstorms and hurricanes?

If you're caught in a thunderstorm, stay low and away from trees—they are natural lightning rods. Indoors, keep away from appliances, because the lightning can go through them. Don't use the telephone either—if lightning strikes a transformer outside, the surge of sound could injure your eardrum. In a hurricane, leave low-lying areas. Protect your windows with boards, shutters or tape, and bring what you can indoors. Stock up on drinking water, and stay inside.

What have been the major breakthroughs in weather reporting?

Technologically, the three biggest have been the computer as a predicting tool, the weather satellite and radar observation. We operate some 125 radars, and with them we can see where thunderstorms are moving. We can even measure how strong the winds are inside.

How do our foreign relations affect our weather forecasting abilities?

We have to know the weather over Europe, Asia, the Atlantic and the Pacific to provide a forecast for the U.S. Weather transcends political boundaries. Meteorologists have been cooperating internationally for centuries. Even during the past 30 years when we did not have formal relations with China, we received their weather data, and they got ours. In fact, we continued to exchange weather information with Cuba all the way through the missile crisis in the early 1960s.

What happens to all this data?

It goes into the National Meteorological Center in Camp Springs, Md., where computers assimilate it. From computer models of the atmosphere come projections of what the weather map should look like tomorrow, the next day and the day after.

How does a local TV or radio station prepare its forecast?

That varies. All television weathermen and women use the same observations and the same computer output from the National Meteorological Center. Some stations use our forecasts directly. Others have their own professional meteorologist on staff who does local forecasts.

Can we do anything about changing the weather?

Today at some airports we can dissipate fog by seeding it, for example, with iodide crystals that change water drops to ice; then the ice drops to the ground. In certain mountainous areas we can increase the precipitation by small amounts, using the same basic method. Economically that can be very significant, because an extra 10 percent of rain means some areas can be irrigated and be made agriculturally productive. There is a lot of research going on to find ways of limiting hail, even some ideas on how to decrease the winds in a hurricane.

Are we in the middle of any long-term weather cycle?

Starting in the late 1940s, there was a slight cooling in the average global temperature, maybe half a degree. That persisted until the late 1960s. Now in the '70s, it seems to have leveled off. But if you look at weather in terms of centuries, we've been in a warming trend since the last ice age, about 20,000 years ago.

How would a new ice age come about?

It would take thousands of years of a cooling trend. But it wouldn't take a great change in global temperature—just three to five degrees. Eventually the ice caps would extend into lower latitudes, which could change a place from being agriculturally productive to unsuitable. During the previous ice age, for example, most of the northern United States was under ice.

Do supersonic jets alter the weather?

There was a great deal of concern back in the late '60s and early 70s that large numbers of supersonic jets would decrease the amount of ozone in the atmosphere. Ozone protects people from ultraviolet rays. Increasing these rays could lead to more skin disorders, including cancer. The latest scientific information indicates that the jets do not lower the ozone level, perhaps even increase it somewhat.

What about the effect of fluorocarbons in aerosols?

The information on whether they change the ozone level isn't all in yet. But we must exercise great caution and try to move away sensibly from the use of fluorocarbons. Americans have to face the fact that this is a very fragile planet. We have to understand what the long-range consequences of our actions are—not just because it's important to us in the next year or two. We have to think of future generations and not do something that is literally irreversible.

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