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?

Commitments, Contradictions and Experiential Learning 101

Article by Susan Cousineau

Susan Cousineau

Susan Cousineau

Well, it’s been a few months. Since my last post, I completed my Permaculture Design Certificate in Jordan and spent my summer first working on a permaculture farm on Denman Island, then on a small start-up organic farm in Armstrong BC (where, in fact, I remain quite contentedly for the moment). I started off charging forward with the joyful prospect of heaping permaculture skills onto my academic background in evolutionary ecology. Heady stuff.

I just want to run out and do everything at once: designing sites, building swales and hugelkultur beds, harvesting water, and basically getting down-and-dirty adding hands-on work to my list of experience. As many of us do, I tend to fall into the classic trap of trying to do everything at once; and to just keep adding skills and experience(s) rather than develop existing ones.

Geoff Lawton, one of the founders of the permaculture movement, teaches the Berkley compost method at  permaculture course in Jordan.

Geoff Lawton, one of the founders of the permaculture movement, teaches the Berkley compost method at permaculture course in Jordan.

This summer was no exception. While I did add a heap-load of skills to my repertoire (and work on some muscles and a tan), I’ve been struggling to process what the few months have meant to me in terms of learning, personal growth, professional growth, and so on.

Some themes keep re-emerging::

 1) Test what you “know” by doing things. Do something. Do anything. The learning is in the doing, not in what feels like “learning”. As a scholar I’m great at getting caught in this trap: the potential for further learning is endless. It’s the doing that needs to be plugged in to make the learning stick.

2) Commitment. Choose something. Anything. But do it, keep moving forward, and all the things you were trying to choose between will either fall away, or fall into the framework of what you commit to. I kept getting hit over the head with this one this year. Everyone from my friends and family to distant voices of past exes to a radio show host used words and phrases like “making a commitment”, “setting down roots,” and “choosing a focus.” I learned a little more about why these phrases keep resonating with me; but also that sticking to an overarching commitment can result in conflicts between the minor goals (e.g. stay in one place and build on basic farming skills, versus drive across Canada and the US on a 6-week road-trip to learn about some alternative approaches to food security and production). And that contradictions are okay. Which leads to . . .

3) We are all full of contradictions. Recently CBC radio host Brent Bambury was discussing with director Errol Morris his documentary “The Unknown Known” on Donald Rumsfeld. Morris was reflecting that Rumsfeld seemed to have little comprehension of the magnitude of his decisions or influence during his time in office; that he seemed to frequently contradict himself without any awareness of having done so. Bambury goes on to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” He then rephrased this to: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and to know and acknowledge that you are doing so.” I guess that tells me I have a great mind, because I can never seem to move forward for the number of contradictory thoughts guiding my decisions! But recognizing the contradictions, and choosing which is more (or less) important to you, is part of life and successful learning.

Trying out the authentic camel-riding nomadic life-style in Jordan.

Trying out the authentic camel-riding nomadic life-style in Jordan.

4)    Understanding is dependent on the perspective you choose from which to view an experience. For example, looking back on the last few months, I could choose to view them from a perspective either of success or failure. First, I learned a lot, made some wonderful friends, spent a lot of time working outside, ejected some logistical fallacies and developed a much greater sense of practicality. On the other hand, I didn’t gain any financial ground, and feel like I’m about where I started in terms of gaining security, stability, forward direction, and so on. Either point of view could be taken as equally valid. Holding those two contradictory possibilities in mind is important so that I avoid deluding myself into a false sense of security that “everything works out” (sometimes it just doesn’t); or into an equally destructive sense of failure that “nothing ever works out” (sometimes it does, it just takes a little longer, or comes about in unexpected ways). Reality is a slippery fish!

Looking back I recognize the optimism of someone with a lot of ideas – and ideals – and not a great deal of time spent putting those ideas into the ground. In all honesty, after more than half a year, I still don’t have any kind of feeling like I’ve “gotten it together” or am ready to offer anything like a usable product to the world – but I do have a more grounded understanding of my own knowledge and experience gaps.

Along with that understanding came a greater humility, and simultaneously a greater confidence in my willingness to try things, watch them fail, try again, and keep working on learning. Things happen more slowly than we’d like them to. Our ideas, and ideals, exceed our abilities. That’s the point.  Otherwise we’d be stagnating. Physically putting our ideas and experience to the test is ultimately – for me, at least – the only way to go.