"Weather nuts': Eyes on skies"
Sunday, February 1, 1998
©1998 San Francisco Examiner  

Me and Joshua Peacock, 14
©1998 San Francisco Examiner

By Michael Dougan

On Dec. 1, 1951, a tempest of biblical proportions raged over San Francisco, forcing the first-ever closure of the Golden Gate Bridge. At the apex of the squall, a child was born to the Heden family. His parents called him Craig. And he would love storms for the rest of his life.

"The weather and meteorology have been a little bit more than just a passionate interest," said Heden, now an electrical engineer living in Pacifica. "It's been a passion that's become an obsession."

A recent call to the Heden home was answered by his wife, Dody Heden. "Why don't you hang on for a second and let me get him down off the roof," she said. "He's fixing his weather station."

Heden is not alone in his preoccupation with matters meteorological. Others, often to the bemusement of their neighbors, keep weather gadgets in their back yards, faithfully record daily temperatures and precipitation levels, and find the best television drama on the Weather Channel.

A local TV weatherman warmly calls them "weather nuts." On the Weather Channel, they're known as "met-heads" ("met" for meteorology).

Susan Foxall of Davis Weather Instruments knows them well.

Her Hayward firm sells primarily to amateur enthusiasts.

"We have more than 100,000 weather stations installed worldwide," she said. Foxall described Davis customers as ranging from "kids in high school who are budding meteorologists to 80-year-old men who are retired who have always been interested in weather."

Many find their fascination at an early age, and some turn pro.

"That's the way I started," said John Monteverdi, an S.F. State professor of meteorology who journeys each summer to Oklahoma to chase tornadoes. "I had a backyard Lionel weather station at my parents' house with a rain gauge, a thermometer and a wind vane. I had many years worth of consecutive records that I contributed to the weather bureau."

So did Jeff Popick, a vineyard manager for two Napa County wineries.

"I began keeping weather records at home (in Baltimore) when I was about 7 or 8 years of age," he recalled. "In high school I used to get up at lunchtime and do a weather report in the cafeteria. I was booed out of town a few times for inaccurate forecasts."

Popick's enthusiasm for the weather was not impressive to his peers. "They thought it was kind of stupid, I think," he admitted. "But, really, when you have a passion like that, you don't care what people think of you."

Popick said such avid weather buffs "are few and far between -- or people are still in the closet about it. My friends know that when I go home at night I spend two or three hours watching the Weather Channel, or on the computer watching all the weather sites on the Net. People know that I'm a nut for it and they're much more willing to indulge me now."

Not all weather aficionados invest in complex gear. "I just have three thermometers and a big rain gauge so I can measure the rain to the hundredths of an inch very accurately," said James Norris, 74, a retired high school teacher in Pinole.

Like many weather devotees, Norris puts his data to good use as a spotter.

Each day for 15 years, he has phoned his readings in to local newspapers and KGO-TV, which -- like most Bay Area television and radio stations -- relies on a network of observers throughout the region to provide numbers for their newscasts.

"Some people volunteer in soup kitchens and some people usher in church and some people do this," he said. "I enjoy it."

So does Joshua Peacock, 14, who reports to KGO from Pittsburg.

After checking the instruments in his backyard weather box each day, Peacock passes the results to Channel 7.

"It gives me an opportunity to sort of do what a meteorologist does, plus I can write reports on what we do" for his science classes, he said. Now, when he travels with his parents, he always watches local forecasts.

"I was even tempted to call in from Phoenix to tell them what the temperature was," said Peacock, who aspires to a career in broadcast journalism.

KGO's spotters "are what I affectionately call weather nuts -- they're very into it," said Channel 7 weatherman Joel Bartlett. "They're very valuable."

The U.S. Weather Service also relies on spotters -- some 285 of them in an 11-county area served by the service's Monterey office.

"They are our eyes out there and they provide an invaluable service," said Bob Benjamin, a forecaster who runs the local spotter program. "When significant weather is observed they give us a call and let us know what they've seen. We're primarily interested in heavy rains, thunder, lightning, certainly any funnel clouds that they've observed."

Heden, whose fervor as an amateur meteorologist is almost all-consuming, does not work as a spotter, although he did serve as disaster coordinator in a former neighborhood.

"I love sharing the data with other people," he said. "My family and friends have come to rely on me to give them good, accurate information."

Weather serves as a focal point for his life with Dody. After 30 years as a couple, she has grown accustomed to her husband's fixation on climactic flux.

"All of our adult lives together, we've used the chasing of weather as an excuse to be together and as a place to go," he said. "When we were dating, we would take trips to Skyline Boulevard by Los Gatos and wait for snow. We've gone lightning chasing in the Sierra."

The Hedens' idea of vacation heaven might sound hellish to most couples. "Once we got caught in a flash flood outside Reno," he said, relishing the memory. "It was one of the most intense storms they've ever had. They had water coming out of the casinos."

Nonetheless, Dody Heden confesses that she occasionally feels like a weather widow.

"Sometimes he's hooked to the computer all through the winter," she said with a patient smile. "I don't mind except when dinner's on the table and he's just got "one more thing' to check. But it goes with the territory."

Heden eagerly shows off what's on that computer. Wired directly to the rooftop weather station, it gives continuous readouts of wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity, rainfall and barometric pressure.

With the push of a button, he can graph any of those over the past 24 hours, week, month or longer. "This is so much better than the old manual way I used to keep my data," he said.

Heden insisted that anyone interested in the weather could quickly master the basics of reading and interpreting charts like his. "This is all within the reach of the lay person," he said.

Heden also uses swells on the nearby ocean (a large, well-spaced surf indicates storms lining up over the Pacific) and the top of nearby Montara Mountain (low cloud cover suggests rain two hours hence) as part of his forecasting pattern.

"There are many weathermen out there who never take time to look out the window," he said.

Heden laments the fact that he and his family dwell in one of the most boring weather regions in America. Does he dream of relocating somewhere more suitable -- like the Midwest's infamous Tornado Alley? "Constantly," he said with a wistful sigh. "All the time."

©1998 San Francisco Examiner