Carey Dickerman approaches with a smile as large as the pink thermos of coffee he casually sips from at 3pm as he nears the security gate guarding the Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center in Monterey. Of all the famed examples of military presence within the boundaries of Monterey, this complex, where science and math are combined by ambitions of clairvoyance, is certainly one of the least discussed among laypeople.
As he leads a tour of the campus, Dickerman’s hop in his step is aided by his red running shoes. A pair of polarized Pugs sports sunglasses rotates from atop a bed of dark, slightly graying curls, to the bridge of his nose and back again. He points out the Naval Research Laboratory and the National Weather Service forecasting center and, finally, the Fleet Numerical building, where he has worked as a meteorologist for 22 years.
Dickerman’s journey to the weather business was quick. It’s been “just a major passion” since he was a child obsessed with storms. His journey to Monterey was more winding. A Boston native, Dickerman went to school in New Hampshire and found work in New York City doing meteorology for the private sector, producing weather forecasts tailored for professional sports teams, Hollywood productions and cities. He eventually made his way to Colorado as a federal contractor with the Department of Energy, and after a brief stint in the sulfur-scented Texas panhandle, Dickerman made a home on the Peninsula.
Fleet Numerical exists to produce weather forecasts tailored to the U.S. Navy: A critical service that helps the branch’s most expensive and strategically-placed assets avoid surprise weather events that can cause damage or increase vulnerability. Dickerman says there are two modes at the facility: crisis and mundane, with little in between. We catch up as the busy “season” is winding down.
Weekly: I’m surprised to hear there is a “season,” busy or slow, for a meteorology team that watches weather around the globe year-round.
Dickerman: By the time you start getting near November, the atmosphere in the Northern Hemisphere creates a less favorable environment for tropical cyclones to develop. We enter Southern Hemisphere season as the sun moves over the equator. The Navy has more assets to protect in the Northern Hemisphere and they are much more interested in areas like the western Pacific and East Coast, where tropical cyclones can threaten those assets, as opposed to areas like the Coral Sea or South Indian Ocean.
How has weather forecasting changed since you first entered the trade?
It’s improved dramatically since my first job. A five-day forecast today could be as good as a one – or two-day forecast 30 years ago. Weather models have improved, the power of computers to crunch and analyze data faster is more advanced and our understanding of the atmosphere and how weather works has changed a lot. We’re getting closer to reality.
Will we ever get to perfect weather prediction?
I don’t think we’ll ever get perfect prediction because there is a certain amount of chaos that’s natural in the atmosphere. The atmosphere behaves a lot like the stock market. You’re trying to predict something where you don’t even have all the information to put into the predictive model. Part of it is that we may not ever completely understand our atmosphere; there are just too many variables.
We won’t ever completely understand the atmosphere in our own home?
I’ve found that we know so little when it comes to nature, even about the things that happen around us all the time. Like lightning. We know what it is, but we don’t completely understand it. Same thing with a tornado. We understand what it is but we don’t completely understand all the steps of tornado genesis.
How do you square with imperfection in a job that is based on math and science?
I’m absolutely in the business of imperfection. You just – man, you do not get perfection. I just accept the imperfection as the state of. Any good science, I think, is about the truth and admitting – putting your ego aside and just looking at, as best you can, “What do I know and what don’t I know about this?” If you can’t address those questions, you’ll never improve the science.