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Joe Witte - Smiling Through the Rain
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With his big, easy smile, Joe Witte puts a silver lining into everything he does, from weather forecasting to educating about climate change.

Name: Joe Witte
Title: Climate Communicator
Organization He Works For: Code 600, Sciences and Exploration Directorate

What is most interesting about your role here at Goddard?

I’m working half-time advising NASA communications, education, and public outreach (E/PO) teams about how to adapt NASA science content for use by TV meteorologists. My job is to do outreach and communications to the 1,300 weather broadcasters around the country. We want them to become climate educators. For example, I gave a speech at the American Meteorological Society Weather Broadcaster’s annual conference in June 2011 about Goddard’s climate science and communication. My theme was that Goddard and NASA do a lot of cutting edge research in climate science and that this research makes for very interesting stories for their viewers. NASA also produces some very helpful visualizations including video and animations, which is what local TV is all about. I’m steering these weather forecasters to our many Web sites.

Photo of Joe Witte› Larger image
Photo of Joe Witte. Credit: NASA/W. Hrybyk
What is so great about the Goddard Office of Communications group is that they are all working on so many great stories that NASA has to tell. They are a great team!

I’m also a half-time doctorate student in Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. Four years ago, I came up with a concept designed to help TV weathercasters become the trusted, local sources of climate science information–to become local climate educators if you will. My concept won an NSF grant and is now the basis for my PhD thesis. The outreach work I am doing here at Goddard is an excellent complement to my thesis work. They both go hand-in-hand. I still have a ways to go before graduation.

Aren’t you Joe Witte the weatherman from NBC news?

Yes, I was NBC’s morning weatherman for 20 years and then I was with CNBC for four years. Before that in the 1980s I was the substitute for Willard Scott. I loved doing science demos. I would have Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley work on a science experiment on air with me. One time I made a “rain drop machine” out of an 8 foot by 6 inch plastic tube filled with clear karo syrup. Jane Pauley demonstrated how raindrops get their shape as they fall through the atmosphere.

I still do the TV audio for the billboards on “The Today Show.” Basically, this means that I announce the sponsor for the weather. We prerecorded 1,700 over the last 15 years.

Do weathermen get blamed for bad weather?

Oh yes, we do! One time I once received a bill for sixteen dollars from a lady for her frozen tomato plants. I wrote her a kind reply.

When you communicate about the weather, sometimes you become the bad news messenger. To some extent, this is also true of climate change but on a different time scale–decades versus days.

So how do you do it?

A smile helps. I say that the heavy rains will be beneficial even though they are causing floods. There is a silver lining in every cloud. The positive spin about climate change is that we can make changes that might temper the climate change. There is hope.

What is the coolest thing you’ve ever done as part of your job at Goddard?

I started out my career in the mid 1960s as a glaciologist at the U.S. Geological Survey. My master’s thesis involved gathering data on Ice Island T-3 in the middle of the Arctic Ocean in mid-winter when it was 40 below. My father was a science teacher so science is in my blood. I enjoy many of the science talks here. The speakers are all so brilliant that they could head a Fortune 500 company.

What do you like most about working at Goddard?

All the people are really dedicated to their work. I’m trying to engage forecasters around the country to report about climate science. Goddard has so many talented earth scientists that it carries over into my own work. A huge part of my message is the value of science, especially informal science education. Science plays such a huge part of economic innovation. I look for the “aha” aspect of science. Because Goddard is at the leading edge of so much science, my job is that much easier.

Can you give us an example of an “aha” science moment?

Absolutely! Six months ago, I brought a friend’s ten-year-old son here to visit. He was just like a kid in a candy store. It was so exciting to see a young kid so thrilled about science. Now he wants to intern here when he is older.

So who are your favorite weathermen?

Well, it varies. Each has different skills. Bob Ryan is one of my current favorites because he weaves science education and stories into his weather report.

I also love Willard Scott. We shared an NBC weather office in the 1980s at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. He’s such a people person; he loves people. He’s done so much for a great many charitable organizations over the years.

Is there something surprising about you that people do not generally know?

I grew up in Seattle, Washington and did a lot of mountain climbing, skiing, and sailing. I’m a Fellow of the Explorer’s Club based on my early days’ work. I’m becoming a Fellow at the American Meteorological Society later this year.

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Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.