Alumni Fellow Award winner Forbes reflects on his time at Penn State

David Kubarek
October 25, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Greg Forbes, a severe weather expert for The Weather Channel, found a familiar place when he returned to Penn State’s University Park campus to accept one of 14 Alumni Fellow Awards, the highest honor given by the Penn State Alumni Association.

It’s where Forbes spent his formative years as an undergraduate in the Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science learning “almost everything he knows today” about weather forecasting and returned to become a tenured faculty member after earning his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Chicago.

Forbes said he fell in love with forecasting when his seventh grade science teacher included it in the curriculum. He chose Penn State, he said, because it was “the best school in the nation for meteorology” and found his niche in severe weather forecasting soon after.

“When I came to Penn State I was surrounded by faculty members in so many different specialties,” Forbes said. “Severe weather was what I wanted to do because I wanted to save lives. That was my goal.”

Because of that, he still tells those interested in meteorology to choose Penn State. He said the number of faculty focused on a variety of specialty areas in the field allows students to find their place.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree, his passion for severe weather took him to Chicago, where he studied tornadoes and severe thunderstorms under world-renowned expert T. Theodore Fujita, inventor of the F-scale rating system for tornadoes.

Forbes said he originally sought a master’s degree to increase his chances of employment at the NOAA/National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center, but plans changed along the way.

“Studying with Fujita proved too exciting, so I wound up getting my Ph.D., thus overqualifying myself for the position,” said Forbes.

Forbes returned to Penn State to fill a temporary faculty vacancy before earning a permanent position.

Forbes said he loved teaching but felt he was living vicariously through his students, teaching them to go on to do the work that he loved. So, at age 49, armed with much forecasting talent and few on-air skills, he began his new career in broadcast television.

“I was a tenured faculty member, and there’s no tenure in television,” Forbes said. “It was a big gamble but it was my goal to be a severe weather forecaster. So off I went and I’ve been doing that for the past 19 years.

Forbes said there was a steep learning curve in the new position. He went from having 60 minutes or more to articulate a message to having a minute or two to reach viewers. The pace of nationwide forecasting for severe weather events — where more than a dozen tornadoes could be moving at one time — was also a challenge. So was the variety of events to cover across the nation.

He likens it to a scene in the television show “I Love Lucy,” where the title character can’t keep pace with candy pouring out of an out-of-control conveyor belt while working at a candy factory.

“With tornado outbreaks like the big Superoutbreak in 2011 there were 20 tornadoes occurring simultaneously,” said Forbes, who officially retired from the network a few months ago. “It felt like tornadoes coming down the conveyor belt faster than one could deal with them.”

He’s seen a lot of change in the field, too. Take tornado warning lead times: They’ve gone from about three minutes of advanced warning — someone might have to see a tornado to report it — to about 14 minutes. That lead time could get much longer as more high-resolution satellites come online. Crude computer models with limited data then versus massive computer power now predict hurricanes and other weather disasters with near-pinpoint accuracy several days out.

He said that’s a bright spot for the next generation of talent in his field.

“When I was a student the public viewed weather forecasts with a lot of skepticism,” Forbes said. “That attitude has changed. We’re in a situation where the three-, four-, five-day forecasts are as good now as they were a day in advance a few decades ago. As computing power and data continues to improve, our forecasting ability will get even better.”

As Forbes spent time on campus getting to know future leaders in the field, he said it was great to return to his former department and to be honored as an alumnus. His trip included guest lectures and time with students.

“I’m very proud to get the Alumni Fellow Award. It’s a great honor,” Forbes said. “I’m also a very proud Penn Stater. At every opportunity, I tell people what a great university Penn State is. When I’m talking to meteorologists or future meteorologists, I always point out that it’s the greatest university in the world for learning how to be a meteorologist and weather forecaster.”

Watch a video interview with Forbes conduced by Weather World's Jon Nese, teaching professor in meteorology at Penn State.

  • Greg Forbes

    Penn State alumnus Greg Forbes, a severe weather expert for The Weather Channel, was honored as one of the University's 2018 Alumni Fellows.

    IMAGE: Courtesy Greg Forbes

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Last Updated November 19, 2018