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Therese Graf

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Forensic weather — a career made for Minnesota

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS
  • Star Tribune
  • June 29, 2013 - 5:46 PM

Meteorologists are a bit different from those of us who just regard weather as “something happening outside.” It’s a story they’ve been reading all their lives. Blizzards in May? Best plot twist ever.

Or, in the case of Therese Graf, pertinent evidence in a court of law. She’s a forensic meteorologist. We’ll get to that in a moment. First: How did you get into weather?

“I had a weather segment in school in fourth grade, and I really fell in love with it. A relative got me into the Milwaukee office of the National Weather Service and showed me around — the maps, the satellite information, the computers. It really piqued my passion, and from that moment on I knew I would be a meteorologist.”

Most people don’t base their career on a fourth-grade interest, but she says that’s not unusual: “In weather, you’ll find that most people who have the passion early on will pursue it. I rarely find one who didn’t have it from early on.”

What’s the appeal to a kid? The thrill of high-pressure fronts? The mystique of barometric pressure?

“It was the severe weather, actually — the awesome force, the immense power. You have to respect it.” A way of explaining the monster under the bed, then.

“When I was a kid, I saw lightning hit the tree by our sandbox, and it totally destroyed the tree. I saw it happen. That was pretty cool. But when I was older, about 11, a thunderstorm hit the house, lightning hit the roofline, and I saw a blue ball of light travel down the hallway and flash into my room.”

Yes, a personal visitation like that might convince one they’ve been selected for the weatherperson profession. Of course, the really good weather — or, as some might call it, the really good bad weather — doesn’t always come to your room.

“When I started out back in the ’80s, I’d get in the car and chase severe storms. Back then you didn’t have technology, cellphones; you’d go to the weather service, get a briefing, and drive to where you think it would hit. Your eyes were your biggest and greatest tool, which they should be. We get so caught up in our technologies, we forget to look out the window and see what’s happening.”

Forensic meteorology — what is that? CSI El Niño?

“It’s looking back at climate data to recreate a situation. Attorneys or insurance companies will look at the data for a lawsuit — if someone falls on an icy sidewalk, we can look at the data and say, yes, it was icy. If someone was building a house and the scaffolding plastic blew into some flames from the wind and caused a fire, we can show if there was wind.”

Why hasn’t anyone built a TV show around this? An intrepid weatherperson who solves crimes by proving the accused couldn’t have committed the murder with a bow and arrow because straight-line winds made it impossible to aim!

Hollywood, here’s your next star.

 

James Lileks

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