Steve Rothfels: Predicting the Unpredictable

Finding order in the chaos of Calgary’s weather with CTV Calgary’s meteorologist

Article by Louise Edwards

Steve Rothfels, the only meteorologist on Calgary television (Photograph courtesy of CTV Calgary)

Steve Rothfels, the only meteorologist on Calgary television (Photograph courtesy of CTV Calgary)

Weather has been a major point of conversation this year, in particular, the flooding that devastated large areas of the city and surrounds in June.

We all rely on the weather forecasts to plan our day, but few of us think about where they come from or how many complex variables are involved; we are often quick to criticize when it stays dry when 70% chance of rain is predicted.

In Calgary, we are lucky to have Steve Rothfels on our screens as a meteorologist for CTV Calgary. Steve is a meteorologist first, broadcaster second, and I was lucky enough to spend some time with him on behalf of the Meaningful Work Project to talk about how he got where he is today, and the valuable role he plays in the community.

I’ve wanted to meet Steve Rothfels for some time. My husband was one of the drivers for the University of Calgary 2005 solar car team and Steve accompanied the team as a meteorologist during the North American Solar Challenge (now renamed the American Solar Challenge), making quite an impression. More recently, I’ve become interested in how the complexity of a weather forecast is communicated in a meaningful way to the general public in just a few minutes, especially in Calgary where things can change so dramatically from one moment to the next.

When I greet him, the first thing I notice is that he is wearing his 2005 U of C solar team shirt and I know I am going to like him. As we start to talk, Steve humbly tries to convince me that he has been driven by more conventional goals of getting a job and making a good living in making his career choices. As we continue our conversation, it is clear that even if not consciously, many of his career decisions have led him towards making a positive community impact.

Initially, Steve wanted to design cars, but after studying mechanical engineering, realized that there might not be the opportunities in that profession that he had hoped for. His alternative was meteorology, a perfect fit for someone who as a kid had meticulously recorded and analysed the temperature at the same time every day before setting off on his paper route. He set off from his native Quebec to study meteorology at the University of Alberta, and never looked back! Upon graduation, jobs in forecasting were not in large supply. Steve relied on his determination (think 235 hand-written resumes), tenacity (rebounding from a job with a consulting firm that folded only a month after he started with them) and a whole lot of creativity to get where is today–one of only a handful of meteorologists on Canadian television today.

Caption 2 Steve (far right) cheering the University of Calgary solar car team over the finish line at the 2005 North American Solar Challenge (Photograph courtesy of Kyle Rebryna)

Caption 2 Steve (far right) cheering the University of Calgary solar car team over the finish line at the 2005 North American Solar Challenge (Photograph courtesy of Kyle Rebryna)

It is Steve’s understated entrepreneurial spirit that strikes me as he tells of how he got to where he is today–when the jobs weren’t there, he just went out and made them, including approaching country and western radio stations to deliver vital agricultural forecasts to local farmers and ultimately approaching the CBC to help their weather announcers to “at least know a little bit about what they were talking about”. When a scandal led to an opening on the other side of the camera, Steve successfully auditioned to become the first meteorologist on Alberta television, targeting his  forecasts specifically to a Calgary audience.

And that’s what still drives Steve today. Not the recognition that comes from being on television, but the three hours he spends each day coming up with the most accurate forecasts for Calgarians, and having a positive impact on people’s lives. After all, whatever people say, most tune in to the weather and use the forecast to plan their day. And what makes people tune in again and again? According to Steve it’s all about accuracy, because an accurate forecast means trust, and building and maintaining that trust keeps Steve committed to the quality of his forecasting.

Unfortunately, he fears the trust built up by television meteorologists like himself could be eroded away as the title is being used to describe less and less qualified people who essentially just read the weather.

But what place needs high-quality forecasters more than Calgary? Steve shares with me that the famous British meteorologist and climatologist Hubert H. Lamb claimed in his 1972 book Climate: Present, Past and Future that nowhere in the world has weather that is more variable from day to day than southwestern Alberta. If not for a continued stream of local meteorologists, how will our community be able to trust such an important decision-making tool?