When folks in western North Carolina need to know what the weather has in store for them, they turn to Ray Russell.
Ray Russell saves lives.
At least, there’s one woman out there who thinks so.
She and her husband were driving to church on a bitterly cold night when, suddenly, her husband grasped his shoulder, wincing. He pulled over to the side of the road, oncoming headlights illuminating his agony.
He’d never liked doctors, and he told her he was confident the tightness would pass. She pleaded with him to head to the hospital. He refused.
Desperate, she said, “Ray says there’s going to be an ice storm tomorrow. I can’t get you to the hospital in that kind of weather. You’ve got to go now.” At this, her husband conceded and turned toward the emergency room, where he learned that he needed immediate bypass surgery.
Weeks later, his grateful wife wrote Russell: “If you didn’t make such reliable predictions, my husband would never have gone to the hospital.”
More than the weather
Russell, a slender man who wears wire-rim glasses, isn’t the sort of weatherman you see on television, waving in the direction of a cold front and reading off a teleprompter. He cooks up area-specific forecasts every morning using local and national data and distributes them through his website, RaysWeather.com.
The site, which has brick-and-mortar offices in Boone and Asheville, gets four million to six million page hits a month and covers a string of western North Carolina counties from Alleghany to Haywood.
On a recent weekday morning — sunny, as predicted — Russell arrives at his Boone office wearing a crisp oxford. He’s been up since 5 a.m. creating the day’s forecast, so he’s grateful for the pot of coffee his office manager has brewing in the company break room. He searches in vain for sugar substitute before resigning himself to black coffee. Regular visitors to RaysWeather.com know real sugar is not an option for Russell. They have been briefed on his daily menu and weight loss tips. Russell includes more than weather in his forecasts; he shares his life.
When his doctor told him he needed to lose weight, Russell told the practitioner that he planned to lose 70 pounds and run a marathon. He recalls, “My doctor leaned in and said, ‘Let’s get you under 200 pounds, and then we’ll talk.’” Russell, who lost 80 pounds in a little more than a year and competed quite impressively in the Boston Marathon in April, opens a low-fat granola bar and adds, with a sly grin, “I make a habit of doing things other people think can’t be done.”
Ray’s Weather Center, the umbrella organization of RaysWeather.com, had its share of naysayers when it was a start-up company. Why would people visit Russell’s site instead of clicking on the television or visiting The Weather Channel online? Because ultimately, weather is local news. “We’re not trying to do the weather for Beijing or New York City,” Russell says. “I want the site to be a reflection of the community.”
Golf balls and snowmen
A recent forecast reads: “Wasn’t Tuesday a gorgeous day? Today will be similar; just add a couple of degrees.” For Mother’s Day, he wrote: “A game-changing cold front makes it all the way to our coast by evening. In the spirit of mothers this weekend, this will be like her opening up the windows to let in some fresh air after cookin’ in the kitchen.”
Highly personal forecasts like these give his forecasts legitimacy and endear him to his often weather-weary audience.
Russell uses standard weather graphics to indicate partly cloudy, sunny, and such, but he’s also created his own visual language so that visitors will know at a glance what the day will bring. Each day on Russell’s forecast is rated according to a scale of one to five golf balls. In winter, the golf balls are accompanied by a Snowman-O-Mometer that varies from a completely formed snowman to a puddle with a carrot nose.
When there’s snow in the forecast, Russell includes predictions for how much snow a county — and sometimes even a particular section of the county — will get. If it’s going to rain on a given afternoon, he doesn’t give readers a percentage chance; he tells them what time the drops will likely begin to fall. For Russell, it’s just a matter of marrying scientific know-how and local knowledge.
The mountainous region of the state is particularly dependent on accurate information in winter. Last winter brought more than 83 inches of ice and snow to Boone, making it the second-snowiest season on record since weather records began for Boone in 1920. Russell’s latest creation for the Ray’s Weather online store is a T-shirt that declares, “I survived the winter of 2010.”
Russell had to spend several nights in a local hotel during the harsh season because his central heat was turned off for renovations to his home. As he was checking out, a woman packing up her luggage started chatting with him about an approaching storm. “When she realized who I was,” he says, “she came up and — I’m not exaggerating — hugged my neck with tears in her eyes.” The woman’s mother had been ill for weeks, and she’d been using Russell’s reports to find breaks in the weather so she could visit.
These are the stories Russell thinks of as he pulls himself out of bed each day before sunrise. Unexpectedly, his role as western North Carolina’s go-to weatherman has helped him make a difference in people’s personal lives.
When Russell was a child growing up in central Tennessee, his hero was Bob Lobertini, a television weatherman. “He made weather cool for me,” Russell says. Over time, his interest in weather gave way to mathematics. When he got to college, he gravitated toward computer work, which was in its infancy. He went on to get a Ph.D. in computer science and began his career as a college professor. In 1991, Russell moved to North Carolina to accept a faculty position in the computer science department at Appalachian State University.
One afternoon, soon after he arrived, he found himself in a colleague’s office checking out weather forecasts. The report for Boone that day was partly sunny with temperatures in the upper 40s. “I looked outside, and it was cloudy and snowing like crazy,” he recalls. “The wind was howling. The temperature was in the 20s.” He turned to his coworker and mused that weather predictions were created using computer models. Russell said then, “We have Ph.Ds. We could do at least as good as this forecast.” His colleague laughed. Russell was serious.
He set about gathering information from college textbooks. He had no formal education in meteorology, but he realized his training as a computer scientist would come in handy. His early forecasts focused on snow probability, and he posted them on his ASU webpage, along with political notations and quirky commentary. “It was sort of blogging before there was such a thing,” Russell says.
In 1998, Russell’s wife, Rhonda, bought him a weather station complete with rain gauge, humidity sensor, and barometer. Russell began using the data he collected from his backyard in Watauga County to create reliable predictions for the area. Not long after, Fred Pfohl, of Fred’s General Mercantile in Beech Mountain, contacted Russell to see if he could use information from the store’s station to create forecasts for Avery County. Russell agreed and, from there, his weather empire began to grow.
Russell now has 55 weather stations dotting the western region of the state. Over the years, other businesses — 120 in all — have joined the effort, along with government offices, elementary schools, and rest homes where residents keep an eye on the stations, which look a little like midsize vacuums wearing pinwheel beanies. The stations report in real time via wireless connections, and their data is available online 24 hours a day for residents interested in getting the scoop on their specific latitude and longitude.
‘The human element’
Large media outlets often automate their forecasts using similar information and data garnered from supercomputers. Russell shakes his head disapprovingly. “The human element is what comes in and turns raw modeling data into something meaningful,” he says. “Otherwise, it ends up mumbo jumbo.” Russell compliments his chief meteorologist, a young weather hound based in Asheville, indicating that he’s learned a great deal from his employee. Russell starts to reference him by name, then pauses. “Let’s just call him Eric Anderson. That’s the name on the site.”
The meteorologists on Russell’s team use pseudonyms in their weather-related work. Russell, whose caricatured face is seen on every page of RaysWeather.com, understands their interest in staying anonymous. “My name is the only real name,” he says. “The people are real. The credentials are real. But they like to go to a restaurant without people asking them about the weather.”
The feedback Russell receives for his efforts is overwhelmingly positive, but when he talks about a particular forecast made during the winter of 2010, a pained look crosses his face. Recounting the incident, Russell puts a splayed hand to his forehead and says, “We had everything right. North to south was right. Time of day was right.”
But it snowed an hour or two longer than he had predicted. That’s the danger of being specific: You stand a greater chance of getting it wrong.
“Forecasting is hard. I don’t care if you’re forecasting economic conditions or weather conditions. It’s a tough business,” he says. “Even the best don’t get it right 100 percent of the time.”
The lobby of Russell’s Boone office is full of framed outdoor photography, but his personal space is sparse. On the walls, there are posters bearing the phases of the moon and two small black-and-white images of snowflakes. The pictures could easily be mistaken for pen-and-ink drawings, and they are far from the color-saturated scene of RaysWeather.com. Russell points to the photos and explains, “Wilson Bentley was the first person to ever photograph a snowflake.”
Excitedly, he moves over to his desk and pulls a slender text off his bookshelf, a picture book, Snowflake Bentley, which he often uses in elementary school talks. When Bentley was growing up in Vermont in the late 1800s, he read about a camera that photographed through microscopes. His parents spent their life’s savings to get him a camera and a miscroscope, and he then worked to photograph snowflakes, eventually capturing more than 5,000 images. Russell flips through the volume and says, “Kids are always fascinated by snowflakes. I like this book because it’s about doing what you have a passion for regardless of what other people think. It shows kids that even if other people aren’t interested in something, if you have enough passion about it, eventually they’ll come around.”
Russell’s journey has a similar moral, and he likes to pass on his enthusiasm for meteorology through educational talks at local elementary schools and public gatherings. He’s also presented work at an American Meteorological Society national convention, and he’s been the principal scientist for several grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Despite his commercial success with Ray’s Weather Center, Russell also still holds a day job as an academic at ASU. When he introduces himself at the beginning of each semester, he tells his students that he’ll be happy to talk to them about the weather before or after class, but they otherwise need to stay focused on their coursework.
“Some of them don’t know who I am, and they just think I’m a batty professor who likes to talk about the weather,” he says. Last winter, when he told a group of freshmen that he thought a big snow was going to prevent them from meeting during their next scheduled class, one student pointed at him and said, “Oh, you’re that Ray!” Russell chuckles and says, “I don’t hide who I am in class, but I guess I don’t advertise it either.”
Russell recently decided to join his students on Facebook after he realized there was a fan page devoted to him with more than 1,000 members, all of them eager to chat about the weather.
“It’s the common denominator,” he says. “I don’t care how rich or poor you are, everyone has to deal with the elements.”
Yes, everyone deals with weather, in good times and in bad, and many North Carolinians rest easier knowing they’ve got a neighbor forecasting as if their lives depend on it.
Leigh Ann Henion is a freelance writer and photographer. Her work has appeared in Smithsonian, The Washington Post magazine, Southern Living, Oxford American, and a variety of other publications. She holds a B.A. in Cultural Studies, an M.A. in Appalachian Studies, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. She is also a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Currently, Leigh Ann is a lecturer in the English department at Appalachian State University. She can be found at leighannhenion.com