The weather man

Marshall Shepherd is an international name when it comes to climate studies

The weather man

Geography Professor Marshall Shepherd has become a media go-to guy when it comes to climate issues.

The football banter begins as Marshall Shepherd enters the classroom on a warm Tuesday in October. “I hope they ran back up the hill and kicked the rock,” Shepherd, a Florida State graduate, says of his alma mater’s shellacking of Clemson the Saturday before.

As he moves into the overview for the day’s class—a lecture on convection—senior Ella Dorsey raises her hand.

“I don’t want to go completely off-topic,” she says, “But I think there may be an omega block forming in the upper Northwest.”

Shepherd’s focus is immediately diverted and the energy in the room increases as he claps his hands in excitement before beginning to search the Internet for appropriate satellite views.

“What level of the atmosphere do omega blocks form in?” he asks. “What kind of map should I pull up?”

As the students chime in with advice on how to quickly locate the appropriate satellite images, Shepherd continues peppering them with questions about omega blocks, one of several patterns that tend to keep weather static for several days and, occasionally, lead to weather extremes, including flooding and droughts.

“There’s definitely some kind of cyclonic low there,” he says, studying a 500 millibar map that is particularly good for studying winter weather patterns throughout the Northern Hemisphere. He returns to Dorsey. “Ella, what evidence do you see that there’s an omega block?” he asks. “Come on up here.”

Dorsey points out a low-pressure system over the Pacific Ocean, a possible ridge of higher atmospheric pressure and another possible low-pressure system.

“That could be a rex block and it could be a hybrid of the two,” he says, identifying a weather pattern that features a strong high-pressure ridge adjacent to a strong low-pressure trough. “It definitely shows atmospheric motion. You can see the low is retrograding which may be the early formation stage of a blocking pattern.

Shepherd directs students to a map of a weather system during a class on satellite meteorology and climatology.

“It’s a really interesting low pattern,” he concludes, praising Dorsey and the other students for looking at satellite images outside of class. Shepherd pauses as though he might be prepared to return to the day’s assigned topic.

“Let’s keep looking at this,” he says as the students laugh, recognizing their professor’s interest in exploring atmospheric changes and their likely effect on the climate and weather.

Shepherd’s love of meteorology and atmospheric science dates back to his childhood, but it was actually his second career choice. He originally planned to be an entomologist, but a severe allergic reaction to a bee sting forced him to reconsider.

As a sixth-grader, Shepherd created a science project titled, “Can a Sixth-Grader Predict the Weather?” that included a collection of weather instruments he constructed using household items and instructions found in a library book. The project was a winner and Shepherd’s career plans were established.

“I created a monster because I told him he could do whatever he wanted to do, and then he did it,” says Frankie Shepherd, Marshall’s 70-year-old mother, chuckling at her son’s accomplishments, including being the first UGA Athletic Association Professor of Social Science, immediate past-president of the American Meteorological Society, director of UGA’s growing atmospheric sciences program and a recurring guest on CNN, “Larry King Live,” Fox, CBS and NOVA, in addition to being quoted in myriad print publications and testifying before Congressional committees.

Frankie Shepherd, an elementary school teacher and principal, recalls Marshall as an avid reader who used the local library to find references for both academics and recreation.

“He came in one day and said he wanted to play tennis. He said, ‘Let me get a book,’” she says. After reading a library book on the sport, Shepherd and his mom began playing at the local high school courts and, before long, entered local tournaments. Ultimately, he lettered in tennis all four years of high school.

Shepherd’s parents divorced before he was born and his mother raised him in her family home in the historic African-American Pearidge Community near Canton. Shepherd’s mother says her son was popular both in Pearidge—an area that has seen many young people convicted of crimes and sentenced to prison—and at Cherokee County High School, where he was elected president of his freshman class, but also was frequently the only African American in the school’s advanced courses.

Stickers and decals from NASA and other space missions cover a shelf in his UGA office.

As a high school senior—and valedictorian of his class—Marshall began searching for colleges. “I wanted to go to Georgia Tech,” he says, “but they didn’t have an atmospheric sciences program.” Instead, he only applied to Florida State University, which has a national reputation in meteorology.

“I wasn’t aware he hadn’t applied to other colleges,” his mother recalls. “I asked him, ‘What would have happened if they had turned you down?’ He said, ‘I knew they wouldn’t.’” As an undergraduate Shepherd continued to excel both socially and academically. He joined Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and was elected president of his senior class. He did so well academically that he earned one of the first American Meteorological Society fellowships, which allowed him to continue with his master’s degree at FSU.

While working on his master’s degree, Shepherd met Warren Washington, a senior atmospheric scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., who provided sage advice.

“Dr. Washington told me, ‘You’re going to be sought after. Establish your science credentials first,’” Shepherd says.

Shepherd embraced Washington’s advice and has published more than 70 research articles since beginning his career in 1994, first as a NASA contractor and within months as a research scientist with NASA’s Earth-Sun Division at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. In 2004 then-President George W. Bush presented him a Presidential Early Career Award for pioneering scientific research.

While at NASA, Shepherd’s research first focused on the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, which provided a starting point for using satellites, radars and improved computer models to more accurately measure precipitation in the tropics. Later he served as deputy mission scientist for the Global Precipitation Measurement mission, an ongoing project that uses multiple satellites to collect rain, snow and other precipitation data worldwide every three hours. In early 2014, NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency will launch a “core observatory” satellite that will take the GPM mission to yet another level by combining the data from all of the participating satellites into one global dataset.

At his kitchen table, Shepherd helps his children (from left) Arissa, 10, and Anderson, 6, prepare to make a barometer using a jar, a balloon, a rubber band and a straw. The project is in a book, Dr. Fred’s Weather Watch: How to Create and Run Your Own Weather Station, co-authored by Fred Bortz and Shepherd, based on Shepherd’s sixth-grade science fair project.

It was while working for NASA that Shepherd earned his Ph.D., his third degree from Florida State University, and met his wife, Ayana, who was earning her master’s degree in urban and regional planning.

By the early 2000s, Shepherd was beginning to make a name for himself both for his research and his ability to communicate with the general public. During that time, he began working with Thomas Mote, the head of UGA’s geography department, who suggested the possibility of Shepherd joining the faculty.

“NASA had been my dream job,” Shepherd says, “but this was an opportunity to be closer to the grandparents and to take the atmospheric science program to a new level.”

Since joining UGA in 2006, Shepherd has continued his research while taking on the added duties of building the atmospheric sciences program. In addition to opportunities for graduate school and jobs in the private sector, students who earn an atmospheric sciences certificate are qualified to work for the federal government as meteorologists and to take the comprehensive test needed to earn the Certified Broadcast Meteorologist seal, a growing requirement for those who want to work on TV.

He shares his interests with his two children, 6-year-old Anderson and 10-year-old Arissa. He helped establish monthly Skype sessions that allow fourth-graders in Dacula’s Alcova Elementary School, including Arissa, to video chat with scientists from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Weather Service and university faculty members. He also is developing an e-book from a text he co-authored earlier that demonstrates how to create the atmospheric instruments he made many years ago as a sixth-grader.

Back in his UGA classroom, Shepherd discusses how hurricanes develop and how their intensity is measured. Drawing up a satellite photo of Ethiopia from 2003, he points to a cloud cluster that became Isabel, a hurricane that knocked out power to the Washington, D.C., area for five days. He also goes on a brief rant.

“Seventy percent of hurricane forecasts come from numerical guidance,” he says. “Our track forecasting has gotten very good. But there is still what is known as the ‘cone of uncertainty’ when it comes to measuring intensity. I hate that term. Uncertainty connotes that we don’t know. I like ‘cone of probability.’”

Alexandra Horst, a senior geography major from Atlanta, is Shepherd’s undergraduate researcher, collecting data on urban climates. She will be included as a co-author on Shepherd’s paper about the subject.

Throughout his lecture, Shepherd emphasizes the importance of conveying to the public the overall accuracy of weather reports (“It’s amazing the number of people who don’t understand what a 20 percent chance of showers means.”) and the vital role meteorology and atmospheric science plays in our future.

“We have to be more engaged,” he says of atmospheric researchers. “There’s both a public and a policy interest in understanding our climate. But when I speak, I present the science. I don’t have a political agenda.”