Q & A: National Weather Service Meteorologist Mike Ekster

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GRAY — For years, Mike Ekster would go west chasing tornadoes. But he had to move to Maine in order to issue seven tornado warnings in one day.

Ekster, a lead meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Gray, was on hand last July to issue an historic seven tornado warnings – five of which were confirmed.

Ekster has spent the last eight years at the NWS Gray office and lives in town with his family. He spoke with the Lakes Region Weekly about Maine weather, this winter, and his work for the Weather Service.

Q: What sort of weather alerts get sent out from this office?

A: Lately, it’s been winter storm warnings, winter storm watches. We have a pretty big forecast responsibility on the ocean waters too. We issue gale warning, small craft advisory for the fishermen and boaters and all that. A pretty big deal is also the aviation forecast… once you start getting snowstorms and fog and stuff like that it becomes very important because our aviation forecasts actually can dictate whether or not we can allow planes to come in, and stuff like that.

Q: What territory is the Gray office responsible for?

A: Basically, the southwest part of Maine…from Jackman all the way down to York county, and to the Midcoast, and then all of New Hampshire. So we forecast for that big area.

Q: Would it be fair to say that this is just a weird winter, or is it just Maine? 

A: Well, I would actually categorize that as just Maine. Because we’ve actually had quite a bit of variability. If you remember back about a month ago during the school February break, it was in the 60s to around 70 degrees and it’s like the snow is starting to melt,  it’s warm out. But once you get into March, it can be a different story. Typically actually, climatologically speaking, March is a snowier month here than December. But it also has more variability.

Q: Are you seeing an increase in extreme weather? 

A: In Maine, it’s always sort of been a staple. We have some quiet years, we really do. Just a few years ago, we had a winter with less than 50 inches of snow. It really goes year by year, we don’t know how it’s going to turn out in the end. That’s what makes it interesting here. Maine is no stranger to big storms, certainly not.

If you’re asking if there’s any connection to global warming or anything like that, I really couldn’t tell you. It seems like the eight years that I’ve been here have been pretty normal. And when I mean normal: variable and harsh at times.

But one thing about Mainers is they take things in stride. For example, when I worked in the New York City office and then the Boston office, you put out a winter storm warning for a foot of snow and it sets off alarm bells and people panic and run for the stores… And around it here it’s like, ‘eh it’s a foot of snow, we’re Mainers, just go and by some brandy or something like that.’ They take it in stride. The only real thing that I think is a massive concern for people are the big ice storms.

Q: When you came to Maine, did you ever think that you’d be issuing seven tornado warnings in one day? 

A: No, in fact, I worked in Kansas and I don’t think that I actually issued that many in one day there either. At least personally, I know the office has, but one person I don’t think so. I just actually did a presentation at the Northeast Storm Conference in Saratoga Springs about that day…

We average maybe two tornadoes a year for the state, so it’s actually not that easy to verify them. From a forecast perspective, you want to verify them but you just don’t want anybody to get hurt.  You want your science — or you want to know — because it can be stressful at times, and there can be a lot of radar data to look at in order to make a proper decision to issue a tornado warning. Because once you do that, you’re locked in.

Q: Knowing any alert you put out is going to go out on the news and affect how people might act – how does that factor in when you’re making that call and if it’s right on the line? 

A: I guess it depends on what you’re doing. As far as a tornado warning, you kinda have to block that out — because you don’t want to say ‘well, I don’t want all these people to get scared and then nothing happens.’ You really can’t think about it that way. You just have to make your best decision based on the science that’s in front of you.

Q: What was the driving force for you pursue a career in weather?

A: It seems like when you’re a little kid, some event happens and you may just be generally interested in thunder and lightning. For example, I was really scared of thunder when I was a little kid… and for some reason, I took that fear of storms and made it into a love of storms. In fact, before I had my child, I went out the plains every year and chased tornadoes for 13 years or so.

But for me, if there was one event, it was probably Hurricane Gloria in 1985. I grew up on Long Island, New York and we basically took a direct hit from that. Ever since then, I was hooked.

Q: Do you guys have any feelings toward TV weathermen and women? Is there any sort of rivalry?

A: We find that the TV people around here, from all of the stations, are actually really nice. When I worked in Boston and New York, there could be some different personalities that you had to watch out for. But around here, everybody seems to work well together. There’s really no serious competition that goes on — I guess people just have the channels that they like to watch.

Every time we gather here, they’re really nice and receptive to what we have to say… We do all the forecasting here, we issue all the warnings and all that stuff, but in the end, what is it, like eighty percent of people get their weather from TV, so our relationship with them has to be really good.

Q: Anything we haven’t covered? 

A: We’re a 24-7 operation here. We never close. Weekends, holidays — somebody’s here… So we’re ready for anything, we never ever close.

In the last few years, we’ve had a pretty big social media presence. That’s something that we’ve actually had to shift gears a little bit for.  It’s something we almost have to have somebody doing that duty alone, along with the phone calls during winter storms. We get a lot of questions on social media now — on Facebook (facebook.com/NWSGray/) and Twitter (@NWSGray). If there’s a big snow squall coming or a tornado warning, we get right on Twitter, and we get a lot of response from that, actually. It’s almost like a new duty that’s popped up over the last few years, but it gets us out there.

Matt Junker can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or mjunker@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @MattJunker.

Mike Ekster is a lead meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Gray.

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