As a science reporter, you've covered a lot of violent weather phenomena. What was your most thrilling weather experience?
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Two come to mind. One was stepping off the C-130 plane at the South Pole and walking into the tunnel that led to the old South Pole station. The air inside the tunnel was around minus 50 degrees, and it was like breathing in icicles. The other was flying through the eye of Hurricane Ivan as it headed across the Gulf towards Mobile, Alabama. I had been hoping to experience what's known as the coliseum effect, with the clouds of the eye wall slanting back like the walls of an open-air stadium to reveal a bright blue sky. Instead, I entered an eerie fairyland filled with gray clouds that looked like turreted castles. Like many big hurricanes, Ivan was going through multiple cycles of building and rebuilding its eye wall, a process that caused its strength to wax, then wane. I'd expected to feel scared but, to my surprise, found that I wasn't as the pilot expertly threaded the plane in and out. The pitch and yaw did make me feel a little woozy, and for that reason, I came to relish the moments of calm as we glided through the eye. We also had some moments of calm when we flew out ahead of Ivan, but down below us was a big ship dwarfed by gigantic waves. The pilot exclaimed, "Get out of there!" That was when I realized that flying through a hurricane was far preferable to experiencing one while out at sea or on land.
I've heard that your family has quite a history with violent weather—did your grandmother really get struck by lightning twice?
I doubt if she herself was struck, but she was in a mountain cabin that was struck during a storm, and she described falling down on the floor unconscious. It was just one of the stories that was part of my childhood, and I was very impressed. My grandmother made it sound like kind of a cool thing, and I thought, "Maybe I should get struck by lightning to see what it feels like!"
And your mother survived a tornado?
Yes, and in fact recently I went back to the house where she lived, and I saw the big window that crashed inward while she and my aunt were there—but luckily not on top of them. That was one of the stories too. I don't know why I've got all these stories about weather following me around. Weather is not the only thing I write about, but I'm known for liking the most extreme, most violent parts of nature, everything from the big bang to hurricanes and tornadoes.
How did you develop this fascination with the scariest forces of nature?
My mother and my aunt were real naturalists. My aunt used to take me out to turn over rocks in the garden and pick up garter snakes. As a result, I've never had a fear of snakes. I've always thought they were fascinating creatures because I handled them when I was 4. My mother knew the Latin and the common names of every wildflower there is. So I think what I developed early on was a broad interest in the natural world and the forces that shape it.
Have you ever been caught in a hurricane yourself?