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Back Room

Tom Skilling

The master meteorologist, 64, on global warming, his infamous brother, and a (rational) fear of lightning

Illustration by Stavros Damos
Illustration: Stavros Damos

I do get angry. Especially when I hear somebody call climate change a hoax. It’s outrageous for a grown adult to be saying this. I want to grab them and say, “Get with the program.”

Our Windy City moniker has nothing to do with the meteorology and everything to do with the politics. Boston is windier. Minneapolis. Milwaukee. Of the major cities, I’ve seen lists that put us at like 14 or 15.

I was playing sandlot baseball in Aurora the day of the Oak Lawn and Belvidere tornadoes: April 21, 1967. It was the first time I saw with my own eyes one of these squall lines I’d seen in books all my life. It was a black shelf cloud rolling at you. And I just watched it. It was amazing. It didn’t immediately even occur to me to run for safety.

I remember when I told my parents I wanted to be a meteorologist. They said, “What about a doctor or a lawyer?” They couldn’t figure out what in the heck they had done wrong.

There was a government publication called The Daily Weather Map. They agreed to send me maps in Aurora when I was about 14. Apparently, there were only two nongovernment recipients around here at the time: Argonne Labs and Tom Skilling.

I went to school in Madison at the University of Wisconsin, birthplace of satellite meteorology. But it was a tumultuous place at the time. Protesters blew up Sterling Hall the week before I was to start class. They were mad because Vietnam War research was being done on computers inside. I remember going to the university-sponsored orientation sessions and being told, “Look, we know the revolution’s coming, but we’re arming, and there’ll be plenty of arms to protect us when it comes.” And I thought, I’m a suburban kid here to learn about the weather. What in the world am I getting into?

When WGN first called, I was having some trouble at a station in Milwaukee. They didn’t go for my weather show: “It’s too technical. Jet streams. And dew points! Viewers only want to know if it’s going to rain and what the temperature will be.”

Today, you’ve got radar on your telephone and access to weather satellites. This is a stunning age.

I am afraid of lightning. It’s not an irrational fear. I’m always amazed at the people who walk outside when the lightning’s hitting cloud to ground. The chance of being struck is not high, but why chance it?


When somebody’s struck, people mistakenly look for the entry and exit points. It doesn’t work like that. Lightning flashes over you, and it will go into orifices like your nostrils and ears. It can blow your eardrums out. And burn you seriously. But you don’t blow up. You’re not turned into a crispy cinder pile. It’s more like a power surge that suddenly messes up the circuits.

I have real questions about that whole thing with my brother Jeff at Enron. You just couldn’t get a criminal out of our family, the way we were raised. He was cast as a rich executive—and they are paid way too much. But my God, he always was bright. And a hard worker. The first one in, the last one out.

My parents paid the ultimate price. My father would get phone calls at 4:30 in the morning saying, “Your son’s a criminal.” He suffered a stroke the day we found out Jeff was going to be hauled on a perp walk. He was comatose for a year. Never ate properly again, never walked.

I’ve been married to my work my whole life. I say that to people and I know they don’t quite understand it and think I’m kidding or exaggerating. But no, it really has been my life.

“Buy for Me the Rain” by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Best weather song for my money.


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