You don’t have to live in here long to know that Colorado weather can be fickle. Sure, we get all that sunshine, but it’s also not unusual to get all four seasons in a single day. For insight on keeping track of—and predicting—our local weather, we turned to Matt Meister, chief meteorologist at FOX21 News, who has been forecasting in Colorado Springs since 2001. We talked with the award-winning Meister about our weather patterns and the challenges of forecasting for the top of a 14er to the lowest elevation in Colorado on the eastern plains.
What’s most important to you in crafting a weather forecast?
Most people are looking for three things: temperature, the feel of which can be impacted by clouds and wind, and if it’s going to be wet or white. I boil it down to how it’s going to feel, because just giving you the temperature forecast doesn’t tell that story.
So in my forecast process and television presentation, I pick the one or two aspects of our weather forecast that most significantly are going to affect the most people. And that’s my weather story. You might have my broadcast on in the background while you’re making breakfast in the morning and telling the kids to get up and making sure your teenager puts a jacket on—and if two hours later you can remember the two big things that are going to affect your day, I’ve done a good job.
You’ve been forecasting the weather in Colorado Springs for almost 20 years, but it was baseball that led you into meteorology?
I came to Colorado to play baseball. I pitched at Colorado Northwestern Community College in Rangely. Baseball’s a game of failure regardless of what your position is. Guys in the Hall of Fame might have .300 career batting averages—which means that 30% of the time they were successful, and 70% of the time they failed. As I figured out that I couldn’t cut it in baseball, I said, “Well what else has low expectations? Weatherman—because you can be wrong half the time and still keep your job.” Self-deprecating humor is very useful in my line of work.
So what’s your batting average, or ERA since you were a pitcher?
You know, we have gotten really, really good forecasting up to about three days out. For the most part, there’s not a ton that catches us totally off guard anymore. There may be times when you get a couple inches more snow than you were expecting, but very rarely do we not have snow in the forecast and then all of a sudden it snows. So I would say nine, nine and a half times out of 10 our forecasts are pretty spot on.
But people remember the one you mess up. And the time you go into forecasting a storm too confidently and don’t have respect for the atmosphere and for the variability in atmospheric processes, that’s the time you’re going to look silly. That’s when you get that curveball in the dirt that you weren’t ready for, and you get an awful swing and a miss. Then people are walking around saying, “I wish I could have that guy’s job and be wrong half the time.”
But the reality is that’s part of the job. We are predicting the future, and we don’t have the ability to monitor every molecule in the atmosphere perfectly at every moment.
How has your forecasting changed over the years?
It’s crazy on a storm by storm basis how much more info we have and how much more accurate it is compared to 20 years ago. But there’s still uncertainty in every forecast we make. Sometimes the best forecast we can give you is explaining the aspect or two that is uncertain, and giving you an explanation that A may happen and B may happen. “It looks a little more likely right now that A is going to happen, but B is a possibility too.” From a scientific perspective, that’s a useful forecast. And as a consumer, you can use that forecast to make some determinations about what you need to decide in your life. Maybe you leave earlier if you’re going to drive somewhere, or hold off till the next day. It’s still useful information.
What are the biggest factors that create our weather patterns here in Colorado Springs?
We look for waves in the atmosphere because that’s where the disturbed weather is. Waves in the atmosphere are where there’s temperature contrast, which creates pressure differences, which gets the wind moving and ultimately starting to circulate. And that tends to draw in different air currents and, oftentimes, moist air coming in and meeting with dry air.
As storms clear the mountains, they get an extra energy source with moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. So in the lee of the mountains here in Eastern Colorado, we’re one of the two places in the U.S.—the other one being off the coast of the Carolinas—where storms tend to intensify and blow up. They’re developing oftentimes right on top of us.
So living beside a 14er makes for some crazy weather—or at least some challenging forecasting?
That does make it a big challenge here. Lots of times you hear, “Oh, the mountains make it hard.” I think there’s more to it than that. The atmosphere has laws that it has to obey, but in reality, it’s not that simple because storms don’t go through in exactly the same place every time. They’ll either start intensifying a little farther to the west, or a little farther to the east, and 50 miles can make a huge difference. I’ve been on the wrong end of it where I’ve literally forecasted a blizzard—like 10, 11, 12 inches of snow—and that storm didn’t intensify until it was east of us, and we got nothing. If you drove 45 minutes east of here, it was awful. There are a lot of rules of thumb about weather forecasting that don’t hold here because of the mountainous terrain.
How does the Palmer Divide affect our weather?
One of the big jobs we do when we’re trying to figure out precipitation in particular is vertical movement of the air. Where is it going up and where is it going down? Because when you lift air, you’re physically forcing it to cool off. And that starts the process of creating clouds and precipitation if enough moisture is present. So we’re really interested where the air is rising vertically. Anytime you push air up against Pikes Peak or up against the Palmer Divide, which is that big hill you drive over between Colorado Springs and Denver, you’re mechanically forcing the air to rise. And you’re making the process of creating clouds and precipitation more efficient. So Pikes Peak and the Palmer Divide definitely play a role. When you bring a storm over the top that has its own lift, and then you add additional lift with the terrain, you do get enhancement of the storm. And so those tend to be areas that get more snow.
For Colorado Springs, the Palmer Divide usually is a deterrent to snow because as these storms move through, they pull in cold air from the north. From Denver at 5,280 feet to the top of the Palmer Divide at 7,300 feet plus, that air is being pushed up toward Monument. But then it gets to Monument Hill, and it starts to sink more than 1,000 feet to Colorado Springs.
There’s this magical elevation, and it tends to be somewhere between Garden of the Gods Road and Briargate Parkway. It’s different depending on the storm, but somewhere in there tends to be the cutoff from really nasty stuff to the north and nothing at the south side of the Springs Metro to Pueblo. If people have been here long enough, they’ve done that drive where you leave downtown and there’s no snow, and it starts to get a little interesting up around Garden of the Gods or around Woodmen. Then you go north and by the time you’re at Interquest you’re like, “Oh my goodness, this is awful.” So there’s a lot of variability over people’s drives to work and home.
How is our weather this year compared with our seasonal trends?
After a good start to winter, January was pretty dry, which isn’t a huge surprise. January is the driest month of the year in Colorado Springs. So as we head toward March and April, we want to see some storms on the horizon. March is our snowiest month of the year; April is one of our snowiest months. Spring in particular is interesting because one big storm can give you the average moisture we expect for both March and April.
How far out can you give a generalized forecast? Is there anything to Farmer’s Almanac-type predictions?
Well, Farmer’s Almanac is good for reading in the restroom; that’s about it. But when you start talking longer term, like months and seasons and years—if you go back 20 or 30 years ago, we had little to no skill in doing that. But as our ability to observe the atmosphere, ocean systems and solar systems have all improved, and we have more data, we’re starting to see connectivity between these different systems.
Seasonal forecasting really is an emerging branch of our science and starts to blend with climatology. What I do as a meteorologist is more what’s happening right now to the next seven or maybe 10 days.
Sometimes I’ll show longer forecasts on the air. But when I do, I say, “Hey, this is from the Climate Prediction Center,” because it’s not my own, whereas my forecast for today, tonight or next week, I’ve come up with that information.
You just returned from the American Meteorological Society’s annual meeting. Did you see anything that blew your mind?
People are doing some pretty cool stuff. I am starting to see more of that seasonal type forecasting. The work that’s being done with that is really, really good, and we’ve been working on it long enough that there are advances starting to be made.
On my journey, I’m focused on how we communicate. And there’s a lot of work being done in the weather enterprise right now about how warnings are communicated, how people process language, and our word choices and colors we use to represent things. There’s a lot of social science and psychological work coming alongside meteorologists because we’re notorious for making some graphic that we think is incredible—but then you show it to someone who doesn’t have a meteorology background, and they may get a totally different message than you’re intending.
Is there a particular season that is the most challenging to predict in Colorado Springs?
Colorado is fun because other than hurricanes, we get it all. I think people are familiar with summer scattered storms. They know, “I know I may or may not get one, but I know there will be some out there.” Winter forecasting is harder because there’s a lot of variability to it. People want to know how much it’s going to snow. But there are so many variables. Is it going to be heavy, wet snow? Is it going to be that airy, ski resort, champagne powder? The same amount of water can equal different amounts of snow depending on the temperature profile in the storm and what the atmospheric conditions are when the snow is made.
What’s your favorite kind of weather?
I like when it’s nasty. I get to experience the power of the atmosphere. The energy storms release is fascinating. So seeing what it can do in those extremes—I’ll take that over sunny and 70 any day.
So a good springtime thunder blizzard?
Yeah, I love when there are tornado warnings on the Eastern Plains and blizzards in the mountains. That happens here pretty frequently in March or April with a big storm, all within about 50 miles. To me, that is pretty amazing.