Kevin Riordan: Longtime weatherman gauges winds of change

Retired meteorologist Bob Wanton of Lindenwold demonstrates a device that he calls a tornado tube, which simulates the rotation of winds in a tornado. He usually shows the device to schoolchildren.
Retired meteorologist Bob Wanton of Lindenwold demonstrates a device that he calls a tornado tube, which simulates the rotation of winds in a tornado. He usually shows the device to schoolchildren. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 16, 2013

When Bob Wanton began his career in the 1960s, meteorologists really did need to keep their eyes on the sky.

Simply scanning a computer screen? Please.

"I had to go outside every hour to do an observation," says Wanton, 68, who retired last year after 46 years with the National Weather Service.

His first office, at what's now Atlantic City International Airport, was in a World War II-era Quonset hut. Not exactly high-tech, but perfect for accessing the elements.

"I logged everything on a form," recalls the Lindenwold resident and grandfather of three. "What percentage of the sky was covered with clouds, what type of clouds, how high they were. . . . Then I sat down at the teletype and sent out my observation into the weather service network."

Back then, a guy on TV wearing a gas station attendant's uniform and squiggling on a map was most people's idea of a weatherman. Trained meteorologists were few. And the notion of a 24-hour weather channel, or continuous climatological updates by phone, would have been considered sci-fi.

Real science, particularly, mathematics, drew Wanton to the profession. He was the unofficial voice of the service's VHF radio broadcasts for more than a decade, and in the 1980s, he began to speak to students and other groups.

Educating the public about weather became his passion. By the time he retired, Wanton figures, he had made 1,375 presentations to more than 131,000 people, ranging in age from 2 to 102. The work led the American Meteorological Society to recognize him last year for his work in science education.

Wanton also teaches some of the courses in the society's DataStreme service, which provides online and in-person instruction for teachers.

"Bob brings the experience of a working scientist into the classroom," says Laurel Springs resident John Moore, director of geoscience at Palmyra Cove Nature Park.

"He was probably the best [educational] outreach program manager in the entire National Weather Service," says Jim Eberwine, a colleague who retired in 2010 and serves as emergency management director of Absecon, where he lives. "Bob absolutely loves meteorology, and he has a great report with students."

Says Wanton, "Everyone is interested in the subject, because when you walk out the door, some kind of weather hits you in the face."

An affable, erudite gentleman who speaks with precision - he offers directions in tenths of a mile to the home he shares with his wife, Jerah - Wanton grew up in Linden, Union County. He became fascinated with meteorology after the one-two punch of hurricanes Connie and Diane in 1955, when he was 11.

"I just wanted to know why things happened, why storms moved in certain directions," he recalls.

Wanton was hired by the National Weather Service even before graduation (those were the days) from the Penn State meteorology program in 1966.

From Atlantic City, he moved up the ladder to the forecast office in Philadelphia. That facility moved to Mount Holly in the 1990s, and serves 34 counties in four states.

Developing forecasts for such an enormous geographic area does not involve going outside to check the clouds, then fill out forms. Wanton doubts computers will ever fully replace humans.

"There are too many variable parameters in forecasting," he says. "Local conditions enter into it, and when [a meteorologist] is in an area for a while, you learn the little idiosyncrasies."

Despite the evolution of technology and climate change, which Wanton believes is real - albeit, not caused solely by humans - the basics of meteorology are unlikely to change.

"Weather is still weather," Wanton says. "It's going to be cloudy one day, sunny the next."


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq.

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