Is Boston College's most high-profile earthquake expert extending his reach into the domain of hurricanes and tropical storms?

John Ebel
Yes and no, says Prof. John Ebel (Geology and Geophysics), director of the Boston College Weston Observatory and a frequent source for the media on temblors and fault lines.

For the past several years, Ebel has been teaching a course on meteorology and weather prediction, and so he and his students were able to track the progress of Hurricane Isabel as it made its way to the east coast of the United States.

Isabel, which was blamed for 34 deaths, did most of its damage in North Carolina and Virginia before veering northwest and almost completely missing New England.

"This is time of year when there is a lot happening in the atmosphere, and hurricanes are most likely to form," said Ebel. "So, in class, I would bring up weather sites for us to analyze, and we actually watched Isabel in its very early stages, before it began attracting attention."

Isabel drew considerable interest from the media as it matured into a Category 5 hurricane, with winds of more than 155 miles per hour, and ominous satellite photos of the massive storm appeared on TV broadcasts and newspapers' front pages.

"From a meteorologist's point of view, Isabel, while it was still out on the ocean, was one of the most impressive hurricanes in a long time," said Ebel. "But it was a moderate hurricane by the time it hit shore, unlike Andrew or Fran."

The media's coverage of Isabel included by-now familiar staples, such as scenes of people taping up their windows in preparation for high winds, or live broadcasts from reporters on stormy beaches. But Ebel says he was by and large satisfied with the reporting.

"My impression was that it was similar to the way the media handle earthquakes," he said. "There is a lot of hype, but some useful information goes out to the public, too. In the end, people do learn more about natural phenomena like hurricanes and how to cope, which is a good thing."

But Ebel isn't about to start holding forth on hurricanes for local newscasts. "I've always been interested in meteorology, and I understand the physics behind it, but I haven't studied to it a serious degree like a professional meteorologist.

"Besides, I have more than enough to do with tracking earthquakes."

Ebel's meteorological students, however, do get a taste of media work. "One of the things we like to do is to videotape students doing weather forecasts," he said, "and you never know where that might lead: One student did an internship a few years ago with [chief meteorologist] Mike Wankum at Channel 56."

-Sean Smith


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