First, Greg Forbes developed an interest in science. Then came a desire to save lives.
That combination led the Cobb County resident to a respected career as a meteorology educator and researcher, then to a 20-year, high-profile stint as the on-camera severe storms expert for the Atlanta-based Weather Channel. On days when severe weather threatened destruction, Forbes provided a familiar and comforting presence for millions of viewers.
Now retired after years of guiding nervous viewers through most of the major storms since 1999, the Latrobe, Pennsylvania, native has taken up other pursuits. But he still does some consulting and — as you might expect — checks in on the forecast regularly.
Atlanta Senior Life recently caught up with him for a phone chat.
Q. Can you tell us about your journey, which led you to national TV?
A. In the eighth grade, our science teacher taught a module on meteorology, and I thought that was pretty cool. When I was shown that meteorology was an actual science, rather than the goofballs — who were sometimes, Bozo the Clown or whatever — giving the weather, I thought it was something that would work for me.
I went to school at Penn State and got my bachelor’s and, while there, heard about the pioneering work being done by Dr. Ted Fujita at the University of Chicago. I went there beginning in the fall of 1972.
I had never intended on being a TV meteorologist. I’d gone to the University of Chicago to get my master’s degree and be a forecaster at what we now call the Storm Prediction Center. [The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/National Weather Service scientific agency that forecasts severe storms and tornadoes and issues watches)
Q. You were at Penn State from 1978 until 1999, teaching severe weather and a variety of other topics. Can you draw a line on what led you from there to The Weather Channel in Atlanta?
A, I left Penn State because I got an offer from The Weather Channel. I figured at that age that that was going to be my only chance to go be an operational severe weather forecaster and save some lives. I decided I would take the opportunity even though it meant being on television.
Q. At The Weather Channel, you both prepared forecasts and researched behind the scenes and went on the air to warn of potential severe outbreaks before guiding viewers through them. What’s the number one severe weather event you covered?
A. I would probably have to name as number one being on the air for what we now call the super outbreak of 2011.That had so many violent tornadoes going on all at once. Just about every [severe storm] produced a strong or violent tornado and some of them long-track. One of them that got a lot of notoriety formed southwest of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and hit part of that community, then tracked all the way up into parts of the Birmingham metro area. In Birmingham, it was dropping shingles from Tuscaloosa out of the sky 10 to 15 minutes in advance.
Q. What’s it like being on the air for something like that? You said there were days when you put in 10 hours straight or more.
A On those days, it’s pretty much adrenaline that kicks in. I don’t get tired all that easily. [There are] tornado outbreaks that have constant tornadoes, so many that you can hardly keep up with them. I would try to find the five or six I thought were either the most dangerous in terms of communities they were about to impact or the ones that looked the most dangerous on radar and talk about them.
Q. You had a hand in revising one of the main tools of modern meteorology, the Fujita Scale, which measures tornado damage. But you also delved into other topics that have had a specific application to our part of the country. Can you talk about that?
A. I did research at Penn State on ice storms and a phenomenon we call cold-air damming. That’s where a wedge of cold air gets trapped east of the Appalachians. That can sometimes result in ice storms and anomalously cold weather even down into the Atlanta area. I was involved in some of the early documentation and analysis of what those were and what was causing those.
Q. Do you think the public has grown more knowledgeable about weather over the course of your career?
A. I think a lot of the public has grown more weather-savvy. One thing that has changed from my years as a student to my years of retirement is that as the numerical models and other ways to analyze the weather have improved. Back in the 70s, the public viewed the forecast very skeptically. Now the public has high expectations of the forecast being accurate.
Q. What’s keeping you busy in retirement?
A. I take a hike on one of the nature trails every day unless it’s raining. Also, I have a basement full of books. I’m a part-time online used book dealer.
Q. One more thing. I hear you acquired the moniker “Stormmaster G” during your years at The Weather Channel. How did that happen?
A. Weather Channel producer David Waller gave me that nickname early in my TWC career. One of the EVPs (executive vice presidents) actually had two rap videos made-one about me and one that had me apparently doing some rap moves. They taped me with my arms in different positions and then edited it to continuous motion.