Luker fuels weather forecasting fire by attending national conference

(Above) Henry Luker keeps a close eye on weather trends from a growing technology center in his Clear Lake home. -Reporter photo by Chris Barragy.

Probably every student celebrates the possibility of a winter storm.  For 16-year-old Henry Luker, it’s a work day.  But make no mistake, it’s exciting for him, too.

Luker, a high school sophomore, is the lead forecaster and founder of the Iowa Weather Network, a non-profit alliance of weather afficionados which has grown from a small operation to a network of skilled forecasters.

Henry says he has had an interest in weather his entire life, dating back to the formation of “Henry’s Severe Weather Center” while he was in the first grade, to his “Iowa Severe Weather Center” back in 2008.  In 2012 he teamed with mentors and friends Jeff Wilcox, owner of the successful Iowa Weather Blog, and Dan Herrstrom, owner of veteran storm chasing website Iowa-Skywarn.org to form what is now the Iowa Weather Network.  Henry says the partnership combines the meteorlogical skills of he and Wilcox, with Herrstrom’s technical prowess.   The three original domains, IowaWX.com, iaswc.org, and iowa-skywarn.org, have since been merged together into a single domain, iawx.net. Since the merger, the Iowa Weather Network has grown dramatically and now has a team of 13.

Late last year Luker arranged an absence from his classes at Clear Lake High School so that he could attend the 40th Annual National Weather Association Annual Meeting in Oklahoma City, Okla.  Together with Wilcox, he listened to presentations ranging from National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini to legendary ABC 33/40 meteorologist James Spann to several other government, private sector, and media meteorologists.  Luker said the keynote speaker, Spann, is highly regarded for his weather coverage during the tornado outbreak that occurred on April 27, 2011 and tragically took over 300 lives.

The help that Spann provided through his coverage is a message which touched Luker deeply.  He says that his Iowa Weather Network was founded on the principle that by sharing accurate information, he could keep Iowans safe.

Today, his operation has grown from a small set-up in his bedroom to a command center in his home’s basement.  His father, Todd, is currently renovating the space to accommodate more than one dozen computer monitors and other technology used to study the nation’s weather.

As important as understanding weather is the ability to communicate with the public, says Luker.  That message was repeated throughout the national weather convention.

“The National Weather Service has been on a mission to communicate weather forecast information better to the public.  We need to do a better job explaining to the public in plain English, rather than in complicated percentages that are hard to communicate,” said Luker.  “A few of the points that I gathered from  one of the presentations is that you can have as accurate of a forecast as you want, but the public still may not prepare for the expected hazards.”

Luker blends presentations on his weather website to engage viewers in a variety of ways.   He uses live coverage, social media, forecasting, radar and live coverage, which he says is typically not available online.

Several other issues around the National Weather Service was also discussed at the national meeting, including simplification of alerts and the 100-plus colors used to denote alerts.

Luker recalled that in his keynote address, Spann noted how physical science has evolved and how the meteorology behind major events has improved immensely; however, the message is not getting to the public.

“He proceeded to show a picture of a mother of one of the survivors – with so much heartbreak, loss, and pain in her face – and went on to summarize it as ‘why we do what we do in the meteorological community.’”

The loss of life, whether at the hands of nature or otherwise, struck Luker further as he and Wilcox included a stop at the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial on their itinerary.

“The situation was quite ironic, as legendary meteorologist James Spann showed and talked about some of the 324 deaths in the April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak - fiancés, near college graduates, and more. One of the final slides he showed was one of the mother of a daughter who was killed in the event. The look was fully similar to the one that I saw at the bombing memorial - pure loss.”

Back in Clear Lake, Luker is enjoying putting new data and technology to use to hopefully keep the public safe from severe weather. He runs four weather models four times daily and examines variable.

“Accuracy and precision has improved so much through technology.  It’s more science now and we are trying to integrate social science for better communication.  I like to keep a local feeling with what I present.  Keep it local; keep it human,” he says.

Luker admits the demands of leading a weather service are consuming, but he is quick to add that as Iowa Weather Network has become more collaborative, it has become more fun.  He also makes a conscious effort to enjoy his high school days, spending time with friends, operating the scoreboard for basketball games, analyzing and watching basketball, and helping the school district with its website and technology needs.  He has built two computers and helped several in the community as a webmaster.

“(Principal) Mike Barkley at Clear Creek gave me an opportunity five years ago to take over their website and he told me to run with it,” said Henry.  “That’s what I’ve been doing and it’s been great.”

Beyond high school, Henry is considering studying Information Technology or Meteorology.  The opportunity to visit the University of Oklahoma’s meteorology department in Oklahoma City continued to feed his interest in the science.

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