Nikki Hathaway sits under an array of screens displaying complex climate information, as well as some popular daytime TV programming.
She’s one of 15 scientists who work in a building on FM 646 a few blocks east of Interstate 45.
They staff the National Weather Service office for Houston-Galveston, which watches over a 23-county area. The scientists spend their workdays searching for severe weather and making more mundane projections that affect your dress, sports, fishing, outdoor recreation and commute each day.
Hathaway, 23, began dreaming of being a meteorologist while still in elementary school in Florida.
“We were learning that day about latitude and longitude, specifically how to plot certain points on a map,” she said. “My third-grade teacher decided that the best way to understand this concept would be to track tropical storms and hurricanes as they approached the United States from the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico.
“I remember being fascinated by just how chaotic in nature these systems were, and specifically how quickly it seemed they could move or essentially stall out.
“From then on I was hooked, but it wasn’t until I was in middle school that I got really serious about the hows and whys behind the weather. This mainly stemmed from active hurricane seasons in the early 2000s that I experienced as a Floridian.”
Later, Hathaway plunged into the nuts and bolts that underlie the science of weather prognostication. Calculus, physics and more mean that to work here, you’ve already learned more science and math than 90 percent of Americans will ever know.
Dan Reilly, a senior scientist at the office, holds the title of warning coordination meteorologist. That means he has overall responsibility for a large variety of weather alerts.
Although many of the maps and charts seen each storm season come from the National Hurricane Center in Miami, the Houston-Galveston office provides data for their calculations on local storms, as well as describing the impacts we can expect both on the coast and in the bay and coastal waters.
“There are several relatively new alerts, products, maps, some brand-new this year,” Reilly said. “A storm surge watch/warning can be issued if life-threatening surge is possible. This is new since Hurricane Ike and was used for the first time last season for hurricanes impacting Florida and the southeast U.S. coast.
A storm surge inundation map also will be generated for hurricanes and tropical storms that is intended to be a reasonable worst case for that storm.
“This should aid in visualizing the potential water depth above ground due to storm surge. New this year will be a time-of-arrival graphic/map for tropical force winds. This should assist planning for evacuations and other pre-landfall actions.”
It can be a stressful slot all year-round for those who have to predict just what Texas weather will do.
“Tornadoes lightning, hail, damaging winds, flash flooding, tropical disturbances, there’s so many,” Reilly said.
“During the winter and spring, sea fog can have a huge impact on navigation and our forecasts are critical for port operations in these situations.
Although the office isn’t open to the public, you can follow it on the Web. It has one of the longest histories of its kind. The first weather office in Texas, and one of the first in America, was established in Galveston 1871, 146 years ago.