Jerry gander: Stenger has his eyes on the skies
There's a winter storm system approaching that will soon drop the first snowfall of the season on Charlottesville and, for the third time this morning, Jerry Stenger needs to interrupt his Hook interview to take a phone call from another reporter wanting to know what's going to happen.Je
"No, it's going to be beautiful– break out the t-shirts and the shorts," he says. "Just make sure you stock up on canned goods first."
According to Stenger, who's tracked changes in Virginia's climate for nearly 30 years as the research coordinator for the UVA Climatology Department, a sense of humor helps while trying to make sense of local weather.
"The weather here can be quite difficult to predict," he says. "We find ourselves at the juncture between cold and warm air masses, as well as moist and dry conditions. If those boundaries shift a few miles in any direction, it can lead to a completely different outcome."
But unlike such former forecasters as David Letterman and Pat Sajak, Stenger's not using his prognostications as a springboard to showbiz. In his heart, he says, he's always been a weatherman.
"When I was about seven or eight," he recalls, "I got my very first piece of weather equipment for Christmas: a wet/dry bulb hygrometer. It measures relative humidity. I set it up outside with my milk bottle barometer and my homemade wind vane. I can't say my observations were all that scientific, but I enjoyed the process."
Now, when it comes to matters of temperature and precipitation, he's the answer man not only for inquiring journalists, but also for trial lawyers.
"I usually get slip-and-fall lawsuits, and they want to know right when the temperature reached freezing," he explains.
How about wedding planners?
"Sometimes they want to know what the weather's going to be like a year from now on a certain date," Stenger says. "I tell them that, on average, it's a 30 percent chance of rain, but to check back with me about three days before the big day."
And befuddled truck drivers?
"I had a guy who was hauling a truckload of hot dogs that exploded. It turned out they were the kind that expand upon cooking, and he had cut the refrigeration off when he stopped for lunch," he says with a laugh.
Lately, though, Stenger has had to field his share of non-climatological questions since his boss of 27 years, Patrick Michaels, resigned his post as UVA's state climatologist, due in large part to his skepticism about the consequences– or even the existence– of global warming.
"Neither I nor many other climatologists have agreed with all of his conclusions," says Stenger of Michaels, "but the basic science that went into them was generally sound, and nobody who knows him questions the sincerity of his beliefs. It's unlikely that any force on earth could have compelled him to do anything but speak his own mind."
While Stenger is not technically Michaels' successor (nobody holds the post of "state climatologist" at present), Stenger is UVA's one-man climatology department. Does the new man in charge believe that global warming exists?
"Sure," Stenger says. "There's little doubt that the available data shows that global average temperatures have increased rather sharply over the last 30 years. The fact that this has occurred over the period of a great increase in the amount of 'greenhouse gases' leads to the reasonable conclusion that at least part of it is driven by human activity."
While the global warming question is certainly central to Stenger's work, it's not all he does.
"We're working on everything from developing a reliable way to forecast which days will be problematic for asthma sufferers to working with state and local officials to figure out how to better manage water supplies," he says. "That's the thing I love most about this job. To borrow from the Mickey Mouse Club, every day is 'Anything Can Happen Day.'"
Age: Even my mom forgets.
Why here? I haven't found a place I like more– at least not year-round.
What's worst about living here? Winter weather forecasting here is not for the faint of heart.
Favorite hangout? The UVA Science and Engineering Library
Most overrated virtue? Not having any, I'm at a loss.
People would be surprised to know: I actually don't like snow. (This is blasphemy in weather nerd-dom.)
What would you change about yourself? I need to get out more.
Proudest accomplishment? Once, I actually backed up my files before the computer crashed.
People find most annoying about you: My "singing" (I can't carry a tune with a bucket).
Whom do you admire? Anyone who has managed to avoid having a cell phone.
Favorite book? The Cider House Rules by John Irving
Subject that causes you to rant? Journalists who ask a lot of silly questions
Biggest 21st-century thrill? The explosion of new technology
Biggest 21st-century creep out? Blogs– do that many people really have all that free time? (If so, what am I doing wrong?)
What do you drive? '88 Honda
In your car CD player right now: An odd mix– from Blind Faith to Edith Piaf
Next journey? As far as that half-tank of gas will take me
Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Boring! They don't exactly call me "wild man."
Regret: Probably that I didn't get into more trouble when I was young enough to get away with it.
Favorite comfort food: Fresh homegrown tomatoes
Always in your refrigerator: Frozen spinach soufflé
Must-see TV: Reruns of Cosmos on the Science Channel
Describe a perfect day. The phone doesn't ring, and the only e-mail I get is "Word of the Day."
Walter Mitty fantasy: Have my own huge kitty-farm, so I can rescue them all.
Who'd play you in the movie? Philip Seymour Hoffman
Most embarrassing moment? When this appears in print
Best advice you ever got? Never let ‘em get you down.
Favorite bumper sticker? "My cat can beat up your cat."