After predicting weather for 35 years, Cumberland man's forecast is retirement

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CUMBERLAND — For Albert Wheeler, weather isn’t something you just praise when the sun shines or complain about when the rain falls.

It’s been a lifelong pursuit and career.

The pursuit may continue, but the career will come to a close at the end of the year when Wheeler, will retire from his job as meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service office in Gray after more than 33 years.

Wheeler’s fascination with weather started early. He grew up in central New York, to the east of Lake Ontario, so winter snow made a significant impression on him. His mother had what Wheeler called “a healthy respect for lightning,” but thunderstorms would draw him out to the porch, to his mother’s consternation.

While Wheeler initially contemplated a career as a science teacher, he said, “in thinking it through … (my) real passion was to learn how to forecast weather.”

After deciding to pursue a degree in meteorology, “everything after that has just been like a dream,” he said. “I still can’t believe that everything has worked out the way it has. It’s just been a really, really wonderful career … doing something you enjoy that helps people; it’s just really rewarding.”

Wheeler graduated in 1975 from the State University of New York at Oswego, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in meteorology, and was hired by A.H. Glenn & Associates in New Orleans. There he produced weather forecasts for offshore oil rigs and conducted studies for future rig sites around the globe.

Wheeler eventually accepted an intern position with the National Weather Service in Bismarck, N.D., in October 1977. He advanced from general forecaster in 1980 to lead forecaster in 1983.

Wheeler, with his wife Pat and three children, returned to the East Coast in 1985 when he became lead forecaster in Philadelphia. Two years later he became deputy meteorologist in charge in Cleveland, where he honed his management and supervisory skills. Finally, he was selected in December 1990 as meteorologist in charge and area manager of the forecast office in Portland, which moved to Gray in 1994.

“The technologies that we have to help us forecast the weather have improved dramatically during the span of my career,” Wheeler said.

He said he has experienced many changes since 1975 in predicting the weather. He once had to type observations and forecasts onto paper punch-tape ribbons and feed them into teletype machines to be transmitted. He had to calculate upper-air balloon launch observations by hand, and code them for transmission.

“Forecasts are more accurate now, and they’re more accurate further out in time,” he said. “… The five-day forecast now is as accurate as the day two or three forecast was maybe 10 or 15 years ago.”

Wheeler said weather forecasting is “a very humbling occupation. You’re constantly reminded of not just your accurate and your good forecasts, but also the forecasts that don’t work out so well. It’s not an exact science; if it were, the forecasts would be accurate 100 percent of the time.

“But those provide opportunities to learn and to improve and find out what went wrong,” he said, “and the next time that situation comes up, hopefully to be able to apply that and produce a better forecast.”

Wheeler said the evidence is overwhelming that average global temperatures are rising.

“The real question is what’s causing that, and how much does human activity contribute to that,” he said.

Wheeler noted that the world is still recovering from the last polar ice age of thousands of years ago, “so part of that is what you would expect to see. … Climate is a very changeable and dynamic thing, and things do change over time.”

Having experienced weather extremes – Wheeler saw a low of 40 degrees below zero while in North Dakota – he said his ideal place to be is where he is now.

“I’m familiar with and really enjoy a four-season climate,” he said.

While the climate in southern Maine may not be everyone’s cup of tea, he added, “I think the weather here is great.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.

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Al Wheeler of Cumberland is wrapping up a 33-year career with the National Weather Service, where he is meteorologist in charge of the Gray office.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.