FOR THE RECORD:
We must have interesting weather -- otherwise, why would an accomplished climatologist and oceanographer such as Bill Patzert want to work here? His title is research scientist at JPL, but during our many episodes of extreme weather, he's practically the color commentator about California meteorology.
In his time he's worked with Vice President Al Gore and NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but he's likely to pop up at a Kiwanis luncheon to talk about global warming, or at an elementary school classroom. Hence his favorite weather joke: Why do you have to be careful when it rains cats and dogs? Because you don't want to step on the poodles!
Why do people obsess about the weather?
Politics are complex, but weather -- everybody thinks they're an expert.
People look at the weather at every level. It's the most popular thing on the 6 o'clock news. You'd be amazed at the number of weather enthusiasts in Los Angeles. We have a local chapter of the [American] Meteorological Society, everyone from the guys in Oxnard who work for the National Weather Service to the local forecasters, people at universities, and just a bunch of amateurs keeping records -- just weather nuts. They love it. [During] the storms, people were sending in the rain rates hour by hour.
Did you grow up in a place with real weather?
Gary, Ind. We lived just off Lake Michigan. Those winds would come screaming down the length of Canada, picking up moisture off Lake Michigan. So we used to have 6-, 7-foot snowdrifts. We had tornadoes. Hot and steamy in the summer. As a kid, I used to take weather observations in the backyard; get our latitude and longitude. My dad had been a sea captain in the Merchant Marine, a convoy commander in World War II. He loved the weather and he loved weather books. I love books [too], the great novels of Joseph Conrad -- there are great weather books, seafaring books as well. I started young and never gave it up.
I'd blown out my knee playing basketball and dropped out of [college] my freshman year and ran away to sea. I hitchhiked to New York and worked for a seaman's union in Brooklyn. Friends of my dad's put me on a tramp freighter. I went around the world. I spent a week in Bali surfing and diving, then back across the Pacific through two great big typhoons.
Then I went [back] to school and double-majored in physics and math at Purdue, a double minor in American literature and geology. One winter, I saw this book on surfing in Hawaii. It was a great time [in graduate school in Hawaii]. You got up at 5 in the morning, went surfing, then to class [for his doctorate in oceanography and meteorology], study in the evening.
What's with all the reports of tornadoes and waterspouts in these recent storms?
We get about five a year. They're small; they're not like the monster tornadoes that swept away Dorothy and Toto. When cold storms come ashore off the Pacific, they violently mix with warm, moist air near the coast, mostly in late afternoons, and we get weak waterspouts and tornadoes. They can be violent and quite damaging. Welcome to California, tornado capital of the West.
How did a climatologist wind up at JPL, which people regard as a space facility?
In 1983, NASA embarked on a new program to measure global ocean sea heights from space. The result [was] a joint satellite mission that revolutionized oceanography and climate science. We cracked many "climate nuts." Our images are used daily to visualize climate changes like El Niño, La Niña and sea-level rise. It was a big gamble, like dropping into a giant wave, but the scientific and personal payoffs have been "awesome, dude."
America's so urbanized, city people often seem to feel apart from the weather, except when it gets outrageous, as it has been.
The history of any region is written in its climate. Farmers thrive or go belly-up depending on three or four years of dry weather or good weather. California is an amazing weather story and water story -- you can't separate the water from the weather. There's nothing natural in California anymore. We changed the Sacramento River during the Gold Rush. We changed the [San Francisco] Bay Delta and Imperial County [with] aqueducts. There's enough water in Southern California for 3 [million] or 4 million people, and now it's pushing 20 million.