MagazineFebruary 2011The Weatherman

The Weatherman

In the North Carolina High Country, people don’t get the forecast from The Weather Channel or local news. They get it from Ray’s Weather Center. The Boone-based online weather service was started casually more than a decade ago by Ray Russell, a computer science professor at Appalachian State University with a passion for prediction. What was once a backyard hobby has turned into the mountain region’s most trusted weather source with more than 250,000 unique visitors each month. Ray’s Weather has grown to 53 weather stations across the mountains and foothills, 12 employees, and another office in Asheville.

What started your fascination with weather?
I’ve been reading meteorology books since I was 10. In 1998 my wife gave me a weather station as a Christmas present, and by the next year, I had it recording live data on my university website. It took off from there.

As a professor, how do you manage a second job as a weatherman?
I still write forecasts, even with five part-time meteorologists on staff. I work way too much—usually from 5am to 8pm. The High Country is an amazing place to cover weather, because we have so much of it to deal with. People are always skiing, rock climbing, or hiking, so weather is an integral part of our lives. It’s just as important as the terrain.

Proudest prediction to date?
A reader who claimed we saved her husband’s life. He started having chest pains on Christmas Eve but refused to go to the doctor. She told him about an ice storm we predicted for the next day and that convinced him to go. Sure enough, he was having a heart attack. We take very seriously the impact we can have on people’s lives, when we put things in the forecast. People make important decisions based on what we tell them. It’s a gift to have that kind of impact in a community.

How did you become a runner?
Five years ago I had a detached retina and went through eight eye surgeries and a period of limited mobility. I gained a bunch of weight, and by January of ’09 I was up to 230 pounds. I decided enough was enough. I lost 75 pounds with diet and running. I finished a half-marathon in Asheville and felt like I had gas left in the tank. I finished my first marathon in Charlotte, and then a few months later some friends gave me an opportunity to run Boston, where I finished in 3:28. I love running, but it’s not always easy to train here in the winter. One day I ran 20 miles indoors on a 1/9-mile oval.

How much snow will the mountains see by winter’s end?
We only predicted 32 inches in Boone, as opposed to last year’s 83. People don’t like to hear this, but most of this year’s snow is behind us.

Places to Go, Things to See: