Lunch with Meteorologist Paul Douglas, Part 1

Paul Douglas was an advisor for the films Jurassic Park and Twister. Recently, we discussed his interest in weather and the the future of forecasting.

Paul Douglas is an entrepreneur and nationally-respected meteorologist with over 30 years of broadcast TV experience.

As you can tell by the content on this site, I’m very into space exploration. It was my first big childhood interest. Yet, my early years also featured other areas of fascination as well.

I used to pore over meteorology books at the library often, and was deeply fascinated by the climate of Arizona — where I lived as a kid. I experienced dust storms and monsoon rains. I once jumped into a dust devil and a small tornado — an extremely rare phenomenon for the Phoenix area — when it passed through my neighborhood!

My quest for weather knowledge has never ceased. When I saw my local TV weather man, Paul Douglas, reveal his 3D weather visualization system, EarthWatch, back in 1991 — I was blown away. Here was a three-dimensional visualization of the weather. It was the stuff of science fiction and it was being used in a real and practical way!

It was only the beginning. I’ve been a big fan of Paul’s work, and followed the evolution of his products and services with great interest. I also was aware of his involvement as an advisor and provider of graphics for the films Jurassic Park and Twister.

Paul Douglas currently owns and operates five weather-related businesses, including the spectacular WeatherNation. I recently had the chance to have lunch with him, where we discussed his interest in weather and the the future of forecasting.

At the Hazelwood Grill …

FutureDude: If you look back at your childhood, how did you view the future?

Paul Douglas: I grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania — the Amish country. It was in a typical suburban subdivision, but surrounded by the Amish. Which was always kind of a time warp. Here you are driving around and you see kids in their buggies. It could be jarring. But, it did help prime the pump with regard to imagining the future.

I really subscribe to that saying “the best way to predict the future is to invent it and to create it”. I love that saying. Another quote that resonates for me was from Eleanor Roosevelt: “the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams”. That has always stuck with me.

For me — growing up in the Amish country — I tried to imagine if I would even be alive in the year 2000. I would be ancient. I’d be 41! (laughs)

So, in your imagination, what did you see?

I pictured the flying cars and the robotic butlers. I used to daydream just like any other kid about what the future would be like. It’s interesting how the future isn’t anything like I thought it would be. It’s a little more mundane in many respects. Our technology and productivity have certainly improved. One person can now do unimaginable things in terms of research. You’ve got the world at your fingertips with the net.

And yet, we are still driving our fossil fuel legacy cars. No robotic butlers. For me, the fun has always been to try to look at the current trends. Trying to look over the horizon and connect the dots, and make some educated guesses about where specifically weather technology will be.

I spend four or five hours a day filtering data — just to try to stay current, and try to position my five companies to take advantage of existing trends.

That makes total sense. As far as weather is concerned, how did you become interested? Did that start in childhood?

It did. I wanted to be an architect until about the age of 14, when, in 1972, a tropical storm named Agnes struck Pennsylvania and caused the biggest flood anyone had ever seen. It wiped out scores of covered bridges in Lancaster County, and flooded the governor’s mansion in Harrisburg.

I’ll never forget coming home. My mother looked in our basement and screamed. Water had come up to the third step. Suddenly our basement was an Olympic-sized swimming pool. All of the family memories were down there. It was a mess.

I have vivid memories of my brother and I in the cold muddy water, in our underwear, trying to stick rags into holes where water was gushing through. Ultimately, I saw a guy drown in the stream behind our house. I watched as they carried his body away in an ambulance.

I’m sorry. That sounds awful.

It was traumatizing for a 14-year-old. I wondered at the time why it hadn’t been better predicted. The weather service said it was going to just pass right through, but it did a loop that stalled right over PA and we got 20 inches of rain in a span of about 36 hours! Catastrophic flooding.

That was the light bulb moment. And I started diving into every book I could in the school library about hurricanes and that led to a fascination with tornadoes. I had a couple of good science teachers as well in 9th grade. I was a Boy Scout. The Weather merit badge was a favorite. All three things converged, and weather became a hobby.

Did you imagine becoming a meteorologist at that point?

Actually, I never thought that I’d be on television. I had no delusions of grandeur. I just thought it was very cool, and that there was some great technology involved. It was an intellectual challenge of trying to connect the dots. And between the tech and the forecast challenge, here was something that I could really wrap my brain around.

Wow. That’s just fascinating, Paul. That’s a great story. Isn’t it amazing how powerful having those teachers, mentors, and organizations like the Boy Scouts can be can be?

I had a physics teacher in high school who really inspired me. It’s really neat how people like that can help you continue along a path.

Absolutely! I think it’s borderline criminal that our teachers are so underpaid and often under-appreciated. In Japan and South Korea, teachers are venerated and glorified. They are paid well, because parents realize that the future of their kids hinges on the quality of their education.

I tell students: “don’t worry about money; worry about finding out what you are passionate about”. If you are passionate, the odds are you’ll be good at it. If you are good at it, the money will come. But it has to be in that order.

We are on the same page there. I agree 100%. Totally. You found your passion and your interests.

Paul’s radar image of the this week’s tornadoes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

As I watched your career over the years, I always sensed that you were on the cutting edge of technology. You have found ways to pull it all together, and create tools that others can use. You’ve created new technologies to help others forecast and depict the weather.

Most importantly, I think that it’s really cool that you created business models to sustain your ideas. I have always considered you a “weather renaissance man”.

Thank you for saying that. I guess I have had a constant fascination with the weather, and especially where it intersects with technology. Trying to make it more accessible, informative, relevant, and interesting — that’s where I want to be.

Early in my career, we were using flat 2D graphics and I was bored. I was at a conference and a Japanese company showed a simulation for a 3D approach to the weather. I was blown away. In fact, he received a standing ovation.

After it was over, I went to the presenter and asked him how much it would cost to license that technology for my TV station back home. The viewers would have loved it! He laughed and asked if I had four million dollars. It required a Fujitsu Super Computer.

Well, I knew there had to be a way to do it at a significantly lower cost. I was aware of the Silicon Graphics workstations that were being used by Industrial Light and Magic. I had seen their computer simulations.

Today you can do the same stuff on a PC, but at the time, it was still magic. So, I leased an SGI workstation and the third developer I shared my vision of 3D weather with got it. He figured it out.

That was the birth of EarthWatch. That was a game-changer. How did you launch it?

We actually debuted the 3D graphics during the first Gulf War to simulate a missile attack on one of our airbases. The news desk had no video, so we used EarthWatch.

I actually remember seeing that!

It’s kind of ironic that the debut of 3D on television was not for weather but for news. Then we launched the weather side and people were mezmerized. We eventually licensed it to hundreds of stations around the United States. Steven Spielberg called and said he was making a little movie called Jurassic Park, and we would love to visualize the weather in 3D.

It’s funny. My kids are obsessed with Jurassic Park. We were just watching the Blu-ray over the weekend, and I was telling them about how you created the tropical storm graphics seen in the Park’s control room. I was aware of that at the time. It was pretty cool, man. Great stuff.

It was fun! We took Hurricane Andrew and superimposed the image on top of a three-dimensional model of Jurassic Park. My developer had to hide under the table, and kept hitting the space bar repeatedly to make it loop and do what Spielberg wanted.

I didn’t make a penny, but he said I could use his name in a press release. That was gold. A TV news director could say, “If it was good enough for Spielberg, it’s good enough for Dubuque!”


Check out Part 2

Here’s the conclusion of our discussion (Lunch with Meteorologist Paul Douglas, Part 2). In it, we talk about personalized weather and the future of broadcasting.

Images: Fredrick Haugen, and courtesy of Paul Douglas

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[…] his own eyes, throughout his life. And like meteorologist Paul Douglas, who I recently interviewed (Lunch with Meteorologist Paul Douglas), and who published this amazing essay for the Huffington Post, Will knows that it’s reality […]