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American Meteorological Society a 'hidden gem' on Beacon Hill

Posted by Roy Greene  January 5, 2012 04:33 PM

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Set back on one of Beacon Hill's busier and more stately streets sits a nearly 200-year-old building housing an organization that is at the hub of meteorological research in the United States. Yet, most Bostonians and tourists have never heard of the American Meteorological Society, which has called 45 Beacon St. home since 1960.

"I guess we're like a hidden gem," Keith Seitter, the society's executive director, said with a smile during in a recent interview.

Seitter says that while no short-term forecasting takes place in this building, the historical organization is working to save lives in ways that the general public may never realize. That work has not gone unnoticed by professionals like NECN meteorologist Matt Noyes.

"The AMS is really just a collection of the best meteorologists in the country," he said. "It truly is a fantastic professional organization."

Founded in 1919 to improve the science of weather forecasting primarily for farmers, the organization looks much different now. Today, the AMS works closely with forecasters, private citizens and government agencies who consult its journals and attend its conferences to gain a better understanding of weather conditions and forecasting.

One constant has not changed, however, says AMS librarian and curator Jinny Nathans.

"We've always been a Boston based organization," she said.

Charles Franklin Brooks of the Blue Hill Observatory was the founding father of the organization as he worked to bring local and regional weather societies together, according to Nathans. In fact, the society was so small that Brooks was able to run it from his desk at Blue Hill.

But that would change. After World War II, the society saw substantial growth because the need for weather forecasting was becoming an every-day priority for everyone from military professionals to local schools, which worried about the safety of their students.

"I think people started to realize we could use weather forecasting in ways that we haven't before," he said. "Prior to this point it was just seen as a military and agricultural need."

The organization began publishing journals and focused on serving the professional weather community. Today, it has more than 14,000 members-10,000 of whom are working professionals, but all weather enthusiasts are encouraged to join.

The society publishes nine monthly journals and sponsors more than 12 conferences annually, according to its website. The science covered ranges from hydrologic meteorology to atmospheric sciences.

It is the conferences, according to Noyes, that are among the most rewarding elements of a membership with the society.

"They get the best and the brightest in the nation to come and talk about weather," he said. "It's an amazing collection of people that come together. They [the AMS] lead the way in terms professional discussions."

NECN's Noyes, who attended a 2005 conference for broadcast meteorologists in Washington, D.C., says he learned a lot as he was able engage in conversation with other broadcasters who were attending.

"You can learn techniques forecasters in tornado alley [use] to see how they handle tornado outbreaks, or forecasters in Florida to find out about hurricane coverage," he said. "It's really helpful."

The society's Boston office houses about 45 employees, who work hard on publishing the society's journals, but their work doesn't end there.

"We work on dialogue between the forecasters, the public and the government," Seitter said. "It is important that the infrastructure is able to digest these forecasts that are being issued by our professionals."

Today, the organization facilitates conversations between scientists and community leaders. Noyes says the biggest challenge in the field is figuring out how to convey what impact a storm or weather event would have on the community.

"We have to be careful not to make promises that cannot be kept," he said. "The technology has come very far, but we can't act like we know more than we do."

Noyes, who has admitted on air when his forecasts have been wrong, believes that viewers appreciate honesty.

"The troubles really come when we say that we're completely confident," he said. "On air, I'll say what I think is going to happen, but we need to admit where the flaws could be ahead of time."

The AMS works with meteorologists on the presentation of information in ways that the general public can understand. This allows them to act quickly based on a weather forecast, according to Seitter.

But Noyes doesn't envy the tough task that the AMS has in doing so. He says that the trouble is magnified by the fact that many on-air forecasters do not necessarily have a degree in meteorology anymore.

"It's not a bad thing," he said. "These folks are great presenters, and we need that in the field. But it leaves the AMS with an interesting challenge because it diversifies who they are trying to reach. It's no longer just a bunch of nerdy scientists who are equally passionate. It's a much more diverse field than just the geeks now."

The organization also focuses on helping government leaders understand forecasts. To do this the AMS operates a small Washington, D.C., office.

"We're an honest broker. Our goal is make sure lawmakers are able to use the science that is available properly on topics like global warming," Seitter said. "We sit down and present the cold hard facts to these politicians based on the best science available."

Despite all this work, the strongest connection that the general public may have with the society is a tiny emblem seen next to the name of their favorite meteorologists on a local news broadcast.

That's because the organization offers certification of both broadcast meteorologists and private forecasters. Private-sector meteorologists can use their certification to be called on to testify in legal matters, while broadcasters may find a certification necessary to maintain a job.

"Our Broadcast Certification is a big deal," Seitter said. "In major markets, a lot of news directors will require that their weather staff get certified because it says that they're able to accurately rely the weather picture to their viewers."

For Noyes, who was recently ranked the No. 1 broadcast meteorologist in the city by Boston.com's A-List, a certification is more of a luxury than a necessity.

"When I was hired nine and a half years ago at the age of 23, I expected to get the certification, but I never have," he said. "It's something I want to do, but it is not a priority. It would feel good to be recognized in a professional setting of the field that I love, but I've never been denied an opportunity because I didn't have it."

The cost of a application to become certified is $300, with an annual renewal fee of $160.

Currently in Boston, five meteorologists hold the seal. They are: Fox 25's Kevin Lamanowicz, WHDH's Jeremy Reiner and Chris Lambert, WCVB's David Brown and Mike Wankum.

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.

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