Now in Alaska, ”Doc” Arnold Recalls His Storm Chasing Days at Ball State

From his mountaintop cabin in Denali National Park & Preserve, Dr. David “Doc” Arnold’s view of snow-capped Alaskan mountains is as different as possible from the Great Plains, where he used radar to guide scores of Ball State meteorology students during summer storm chasing classes.

Doc Arnold with wife Cindy and sled dog Trout

”Doc“ Arnold with his wife, Cindy, and their adopted sled dog, Trout, a retired Denali National Park K-9 Ranger.

It was 1998 when he arrived in Muncie from Mississippi State University, where he helped develop the nation’s first — and, at the time, only — broadcast meteorology program. By 2002, operational meteorology (for nonbroadcasters) and climatology became an option for Ball State geography majors.

He’d also recruited students and had 60 to 65 sophomores to seniors taking classes when the program became a reality. It’s grown so much in popularity and breadth that meteorology and climatology became a major last year in the College of Sciences and Humanities. Today, 75 to 80 sophomores and up major in it, said Dr. David Call, associate professor of geography.

Since leaving in 2006, Arnold’s taught and consulted. Now he works for Alaska Geographic in Denali, formerly Mount McKinley National Park. It’s the third-biggest of Alaska’s eight national parks with nearly 9,500 square miles of land and water, making it larger than New Hampshire.

He recently spoke with Ball State Magazine about his involvement in the launch of campus’s pioneering meteorology program and what he’s up to now.

Q: When you got to Ball State, what was offered in terms of meteorology and what did you envision for the program?

A: When I arrived, the Department of Geography  had two weather courses. Short term, I was looking to work with the telecommunications (TCOM) department and develop the opportunity to learn broadcast meteorology (so students could) pass the exams down the road to obtain their broadcast seals of approval.

meteorology, storm chasing

Planning is vital when storm chasing, Arnold notes: He’d rather be chasing a storm than having one chase him. Photos courtesy of Dave Arnold.

The National Weather Association requires somebody to have knowledge of meteorology and broadcasting. You’re evaluated on the quality of your weather cast, your ability to express some fairly complex physical principles to the lay audience and to use appropriate terminology they can understand.

Long term, it was to grow the program in operational meteorology, which is for meteorologists interested in careers outside of broadcasting. They would become certified through the American Meteorological Society, the organization that establishes programs to develop forecasters for the National Weather Service.

It worked out well. And it wasn’t due to just the quality of the TCOM department. They were so welcoming and cooperative and really interested in providing opportunities for students to develop. That’s one of the things that drew me to Ball State.

Q: How long did it take to create the meteorology program?

A: It took four years to get that program developed and approved by the department, college and University. At the same time, you have to recruit students. My first attempt was to recruit local people, like John Dissauer (’99) and Marcus Bailey (’05), before we started to draw students from outside Indiana.

Q: John and Marcus are among five alumni who are meteorologists at Indy TV stations. Others are on-air meteorologists from New York to Dallas or work for the National Weather Service. What accounts for that success?

A: Part of that is because there was such a demand for people who had a nice balance between the physics of the atmosphere and the ability to actually broadcast.

meteorology, storm chasing

Arnold  (center, leaning on the car) and his team watch storm clouds build while hoping they are in the right place at the right time. Photo by Judy Eaton and Fred Kissinger, 2004.

Most of the other meteorology programs in the country, other than Mississippi State, focused very much on theory and atmospheric physics with the idea that once you graduated with a solid background, you would pick up the bits and pieces of broadcasting and work your way into the system.

Ball State’s approach — a balance between education and training — was sort of revolutionary. That is why I developed the summer storm chase class. Students spent semesters in the classroom, and I would take them out locally, but there’s nothing like going out to the Great Plains for a month with 12, 15 students and teaching them while the atmosphere is doing its thing right in front of you.

Q: NBC Nightly News featured your storm chasing team in May 2005. Former students rave about the trips, saying the experience lets them fully translate what they see on radar into their forecasts. And alumni say NewsLink helped them get their foot in the door.

A: Exactly. That’s the advantage of balancing education and training as opposed to just focusing purely on education.

storm chasing, meteorology

Soon after getting to Ball State in 1998, Arnold began creating a storm chase team that prowled east central Indiana. He started the summer storm chasing class, which hunted severe weather in the Great Plains, in 1999. The picture shown above is from his storm chasing time at Mississippi State.

Q: It doesn’t seem that they could be happier.

A: That makes my career feel like it was worthwhile.

Q: Could you talk about what Alaska Geographic does and what you do for it?

A: Alaska Geographic is a nonprofit. It partners with the National Park Service, providing education and guiding in the national parks in Alaska.

Part of what I do is narrate bus tours. Private vehicles can only go in the first 15 miles of the Denali park road’s 92 miles. So to get further into the park, you have to pay to get on a tour bus.

For the tours, I explain the integration of weather and climate and geology, landforms, flora and fauna, and how they all work together. So, it ties the atmosphere in, along with the geology, to provide a context for tourists to understand the plants and the animals they see.

And then I help tourists at the Denali Visitor Center plan their excursions in the park.

Alaska’s a big place. I think a lot of people make the mistake of thinking, “OK. I’m going to come up here for a week.” Kind of blows my mind. If it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, I’d take two or three weeks.

Q: What a great way to use all the knowledge you’ve built up.

A: That’s primarily why I do it. I could be retired now, but I just enjoy doing that in the summers. Once a teacher, always a teacher. After a while, you feel like you’re going to explode if you don’t get that information out.


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