His head in the clouds, his eye on the sky

Mark Breen is the senior meteorologist at the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium in St. Johnsbury, Vt. There, he works to educate the public about science and weather. His weather forecast “Eye on the Sky” can be heard every weekday morning on Vermont Public Radio.

Can you speak a little bit about the connection between Mark Breen the meteorologist and Mark Breen the actor and musician? In what was do these different aspects of you complement each other?

I think that [it has helped] my comfort level in terms of speaking. Generally, on the radio, I don’t see my audience. Within my first year of forecasting, I had my first experience of realizing how many people I talk to. A couple came into the museum from Montreal, and they said they were listening to me on the radio. It suddenly occurred to me that I wasn’t just talking to maybe a couple hundred people or a few thousand people but maybe a whole lot of people. It was a little unnerving. Truly, my comfort level in the ability to present information and the ability to organize my thoughts ties in with the acting I’ve done. This type of thing, where I go out and do presentations, is not something all meteorologists do, but I am quite comfortable doing it.

What has been your most accurate prediction of a memorable weather event?

I don’t remember the good ones. I remember the ones that I didn’t forecast well. The one that sticks in my mind was a snowstorm in March of 1984. I remember that my forecast called for six to 12 inches of snow, which was more than the weather service was calling for, but as it turned out, we had 36 inches of snow all within 12 hours. It snowed incredibly. That’s my absolute classic busted forecast.

What lessons have you taken away from those bad calls?

Humbleness is always a really good quality in forecasting. As much as I think I’ve got it all figured out, you know there’s going to be some error that’s built into there. There is a bit of caution built into all of my forecasts. Being comfortable in being wrong is a key thing not just in meteorology. I mean, that’s a life lesson. We are all going to be wrong at some point, and some things don’t work in the way we intended them to. The better you can handle that, the better off you will be.

At what age did you begin what seems to be a life-long love affair with all things weather related? Did people think you were strange as a child?

[Laughs] Well, people may have thought I was a strange child. They didn’t tell me. In terms of doing the weather and forecasting, I would say [I started] somewhere around the seventh or eighth grade, so I was 12 or 13 years old. I knew I was going to be a forecaster. So, whether people thought I was weird or not, they definitely didn’t think that I really knew what I wanted to do when I was 12 years old, but I did. It hasn’t varied since then. I have hundreds of other interests, but weather always remained on top and I knew I was going to be a forecaster. Only one thing changed: I thought I was going to be a television weather forecaster. I even have, somewhere, in my deep, dark archives, my resume tapes that I was going to send out to different television stations to try and get a job. When the Vermont Public Radio thing came up, well, that’s where I am.

Do you find the expression “Nothing better to do than talk about the weather” to be annoying?

[Laughs] I’m not sure that I find it annoying. The other corollary to that is nobody could start a conversation if they couldn’t talk about the weather, and that certainly seems to be true in some cases, including myself. The funny thing is, I can be standing in line at the grocery store, and I really get a kick out of hearing other people talk about the weather.

What aspect of forecasting most appeals to you?

I like asking how the atmosphere is going to behave today, for example, over a particular mountain range. As the technology improves, it allows me to do a little bit more fine-tuning with my forecasting. I keep feeling like I am upping the bar. I don’t want to just know that it’s going to rain this afternoon. I want to be able to say that you’re all set until three o’clock. It’s a challenge because it doesn’t always work out. I also have a particular affinity for farmers. When I grew up, one of the things I did with a friend of mine, who lived on a farm, was haying. We did lots of haying, and haying requires a certain amount of time for the hay to dry. For farmers, I really want to get that right. They can cut hay when they need to cut it and get it in within that short window to bale it.

What kinds of weather events are particularly difficult to forecast with accuracy?

Summer weather, as a general rule, gets tough once you get into the scattered and localized showers and thundershowers. They are tough to predict, and it is hard to get people to understand that, while it may or may not rain today, we still have to put showers in the forecast. The other challenge is in winter storms. They are really complicated over us, which is fun in some sense, but it is a real challenge in terms of getting the forecast right. You’re dealing with different types of precipitation. So is it going to be rain, sleet, or snow? And how is it going to change through it all? Then you have to figure out how much of each precipitation, and the storm evolves while you are forecasting. A winter storm is certainly a significant challenge.

Would you say those storms are the weather type you find the most intriguing?

Oh absolutely. In some ways, the bigger the challenge the more fun and exciting it is. I enjoy a nice sunny afternoon; there is no question about it. There just isn’t a lot of intrigue in them.

You’ve been doing this for around 30 years now. Given the advances in technology over the period, how much more accurate are your forecasts now?

My forecasts have become more accurate, no question about it. Technology has helped some of that, and experience has definitely helped. There were very few weather reports 30 years ago. There were like six reports in all of Vermont. Now, almost everybody has a backyard weather station, which is great. In the gap [between those times], I was able to get people to call me. I would just say on the air “If you want to report the weather in Bennington, just give me a call,” and I wound up with about 12 to 15 people who would call in. That eventually evolved to email, and they still send me weather reports. One of those individuals in Hillsborough Upper Village has been doing it ever since I started. He was one of the first people who responded to “I need some help here.” Of course, then I hear from people in Montreal who say “I don’t care about what’s happening in Hillsborough! Just tell me what the weather is going to do here!” But he is a long, long time observer for me.

Do you believe the climate is changing in Vermont and do you worry about it?

I absolutely think that the climate is changing. I’m not sure that I’m worried about it, not in a practical sense. In other words, I expect that, in 30 or 50 years from now, there’ll still be skiing and maple sugaring and so forth. It just might look a little bit different. I also feel, looking forward, that the generation coming up has had [climate change] in front of them their whole lives. I think there’s going to be a greater awareness of human impact on the environment. Now, I’m more curious about how that’s going to manifest itself in terms of changes in behavior. I’m the optimist in the bunch. I am not terribly pessimistic about it. I think that human beings will adapt and find out even more about climate, which I am excited about from a scientific viewpoint. I am very confident that there are changes taking place. I’m not so confident in what the effects are going to be moving forward.

Is this your dream job? Why?

That’s an interesting question. I’ve never really thought about it. I wouldn’t say it’s my “dream job” because, like most everybody’s job, there are things that I would rather not deal with, having said that though; the ability to work early in the morning is a personal preference of mine. I love being up at that hour. I love doing the forecasting part of my job. I like that Vermont is small enough that I can go anywhere in the state, and into New Hampshire, and people will know about “Eye in the Sky.” It’s not my dream job, but it might be my daydream job.

What is the greatest compliment anyone has paid you regarding your work on VPR?

Sometimes during a Q&A, or in the chat afterwards, somebody will come up to me and mention a particular event that happened. Stuff like “you were absolutely dead on with my daughter’s wedding!” I can’t point to a specific one, but it is always very satisfying when I learn that my forecast has helped somebody out with a situation, whether it is something inconsequential or something really significant to them.