Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 22, 2010

The weatherman of College Terrace

Resident Richard Stolee forecasts — rain or shine

by Sue Dremann

Talking about the weather is never boring to Richard Stolee. Wednesday morning's torrential rains offered a plethora of opportunities to discuss his favorite subject: The rain roared and thunder pealed, closely followed by bright flashes of lightning.

"I used to just stare out the window and look at the rain and I wondered, 'Gosh, why does it happen?'" he said, recalling his early childhood.

Stolee, 68, is College Terrace's very own amateur meteorologist. He has been forecasting the weather for more than 60 years, passing on predictions to a loyal band of 150 friends, colleagues and neighbors, he said.

"I've been studying weather since age 5. I started forecasting when I entered school because I didn't want to do my homework, so I forecasted weather instead," he said.

When he was 6 or 7 years old and living in Los Angeles, Stolee's parents drove him to the National Weather Bureau office. Stolee got a tour and met meteorologists, with whom he became friends, he said. He attended weather-forecast meetings, learning first-hand from the professionals. In the U.S. Navy, he went to post-graduate school in meteorology, he said.

Back then, the weather service was the only place to get weather data, he said.

"It was compiled all throughout the world. The information was collected via ships. Now the computer does everything," he said.

Sitting at his dining-room table Stolee pulled up a computer-generated forecast map of the Northern Pacific region. One week ago, a very powerful jet stream pushed straight toward the coast, setting up storm after storm, which the area has experienced this week, he said.

He pointed to a dark ribbon of blue forming a thick, undulating band from the southwest toward the coast. "We're seeing a buckle of pressure that is pushing the storm into Southern California," he said, where heavy rains and flooding are predicted.

Real-time models showed intense, red areas where towering clouds filled with moisture were dumping onto San Jose and into Palo Alto. Outside, thunder boomed.

Stolee uses many computer models to form his predictions, from the U.S., Canada and Europe, he said. One shows a huge blob of moisture that another does not, coming up from the south.

Stolee studies ridges, peaks and troughs to find commonalities, which provide the most probable weather scenarios, he said. He started Richard Stolee's Weatherblog, at www.weatherpro.wordpress.com, to keep locals and friends informed when e-mailing predictions became too cumbersome.

Stolee's long-range forecasts go further out than the weather service, he said. He projects out 15 days and his predictions are more refined, homing in on local weather patterns and in Central and Southern California, where he has many friends, he said.

"Everybody talks to me about the weather. They want to know about travel weather; they want to know the weather 30 days out," he said.

Paul Cole, a resident of Arastradero Road near Gunn High School, used Stolee to forecast weather during a trip to Italy with his wife a few months ago.

"His predictions are significantly better than on commercial sites," Cole said.

The site is easy to use, he added.

"He has neat features not found on other sites. I can see a radar picture of rainfall and can zoom in close to my home. I can see exactly what the radar shows in near-real time. I can see if in five minutes' time when I go outside if I will be soaked," he said.

Stolee's day job is as a family therapist in Palo Alto. His dissertation was on the causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a cyclical mood disorder that frequently occurs in winter, he said. He wanted to understand which part of weather affects mood: clouds, rain, light or barometric pressure.

People tend to have emotional responses to weather, finding the darkness and rain depressive or exciting and invigorating, he said. Stolee, an optimist, is happy when it rains and tends to be bored by long periods of sunshine, he said.

"There was a big emotional factor in early forecasting," he said. An optimist who wanted it to rain would look for indications of potential rain when developing a forecast, while a pessimist might make an assumption that wouldn't anticipate rain, he said.

But there is less personal projection in forecasting today because of computers, which crunch data from multiple sources, he said. "Now they try to keep continuity so people don't get confused," he said.

Stolee's love of the weather has filtered down to his children and wife, Eileen. "They like the exciting weather" but shun the computer forecasting, he said.

Just as the storm roared into Palo Alto on Wednesday, Stolee's daughter, Bridget, sent a text message to her dad letting him know the storm was drenching her area in Puget Sound, Wash.

In his six decades of forecasting Stolee has noticed weather swings, such as drought and storms, seem more intense, he said.

There are many things still unknown about weather and that meteorologists don't know how to put into weather forecasting, Stolee added.

And that's what has made weather prediction endlessly fascinating:

"There are lots of things going on every day," he said.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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