Museum of Science and Industry

Did you know that one inch of water can produce between six and forty inches of snow depending on the conditions? Or that the mathematical models used by meteorologists to forecast weather incorporate factors as disparate as color of ground vegetation, ice coverage and Saharan dust. Or how about the fact that a blocking pattern (in this case warm air) hovering above Greenland was responsible for last year's wild winter weather in Chicago (and may strike again)?

Nope? Well, before my visit with Tom Skilling, neither did I.

Day 21 was "Weather Day" and I had the opportunity to talk to a great authority on the subject. Tom started his broadcast career when he was just 14 years old and has been with WGN since 1978. He not only forecasts the weather, he writes for the Chicago Tribune and has become known for educating the public on weather-related topics through his "Ask Tom Why" column. In the column, Tom debunks myths, explains strange phenomena and is a general purveyor of weather trivia. It's full of interesting information and definitely worth a read.

What was immediately obvious upon talking to Tom was his enthusiasm. He loves his job and loves to teach people about his passion: weather. Seeing someone that committed to his job was a real inspiration. Even if I found weather boring or had no interest in science (neither happens to be the case), just being in his presence is invigorating. It makes me want to run out and pursue my passion (thankfully, Month at the Museum is already letting me do that). His warmth and enthusiasm are infectious.

The second thing that was blatantly apparent (at least to myself) was that I've given surprisingly little thought to what makes weather happen. Most of the things that Tom said made sense but I had never investigated the subject enough to know the information on my own. I confess that even a basic question like "why does the wind blow?" was a bit of a mystery to me. I experience it every day but didn't ever realize how little I understood (geez, this sounds like a Joni Mitchell song doesn't it?). In a way, I felt a little disappointed in myself for being so complacent. On the other hand I thought: "gosh, I've got a lot of work to do!" I've got to start figuring this stuff out!

I've said before that adults don't often ask the questions that kids do. We sometimes don't realize how much we don't know. Today was a great personal reminder to be inquisitive and to keep asking questions - not just for these 30 days but for the rest of my life.


Tom develops his forecast by ensembling (or combining) the outcomes of different weather models (based on complicated mathematics). Here he's used 9+ models to develop his prediction.

Tom explained everything from microbursts to advances in weather radar technology. It was fascinating.

A photo of me on a monitor in front of a monitor. Geeking out at the WGN Weather Center.

While much is done on computers, Tom sketches out diagrams and maps by hand to be used in the Chicago Tribune. A staff artist then makes them newspaper-ready.

  • Readers' Comments (2)
Rita K
November 09, 2011

I attended a lecture at MSI given by Tom on tsunami's a few years ago. He is passionate, knowledgeable and gave a very informative presentation. He makes weather fun and interesting.

November 14, 2011

Pretty neat stuff there! Weather is quite fascinating! Not gonna lie, I'm kinda jealous you met Tom! LOL

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kevin byrne

A digital marketing analyst from Chicago, Kevin is living inside the largest science museum in the Western Hemisphere for 30 days.

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