Thursday, February 10, 2011

Talking About the Weather--plus Helping Kids, Chasing Storms, Saving the Earth and Watching Jersey Shore--with NBC 5 Chicago Meteorologist Ginger Zee

Between last week's third-worst blizzard in Chicago history and this week's sub-arctic temperatures, the winter weather has been one of the hottest topics in town (and throughout the Midwest).

So it made for a nice excuse for me to reach out to Ginger Zee, the amicably engaging weekend meteorologist at Chicago's NBC 5 with amazingly aquamarine eyes.

Every bit as friendly over the phone as she appears on TV, Ginger certainly wasn't happy about the consequences of the 20.2" of snow that besieged Chicago between February 1 & 2. But she is proud to have been largely dead-on in her forecasts.

Yes, she foresaw the coming of the snowpocalypse
(and tried to warn us)

"Although meteorologists can see a major storm system up to seven days before it hits, it's not until four days prior that we that we really get a great idea of how it will take shape," she explained. "Once the storm hit land on Sunday [Jan. 30], I realized how big and impactful it would be."

Indeed, on her TV forecasts--she does triple-duty on both weekend days--as well as through her Facebook and Twitter feeds to a combined 10,000+ followers, Ginger was well out front about the vehemence of the blizzard. On Sunday, she tweeted, "At least a foot...potentially a foot and a half" and by midday Tuesday, she chided any remaining skeptics with this Facebook post:

While she won't second guess the decision not to shut down Lake Shore Drive--resulting in the situation I wrote about here--and notes that the accidents exacerbating the massive standstill could also have happened on the Eisenhower, Dan Ryan or other expressways, Ginger did note that at a 3:00pm appointment on Tuesday, Feb. 1, she advised an acquaintance against taking the Drive home.

Ginger doesn't claim to be prescient, but with a Bachelor's degree in Meteorology from Valparaiso University--where she now serves as an Adjunct Professor--she is a scientist who prepares her own forecasts. Although she didn't specifically say it, she clearly enjoys disproving whatever archaic perceptions some may have of a "weather girl," and remains rabid about expanding her expertise.

Of the near-record accumulation, Ginger professes to have been enthralled by the intensity of the lake effect snow. "One lake effect band on Wednesday morning brought a 1-2" snowfall rate per hour, which is what really got us up over 20 inches." (20.2" was the official recording at O'Hare, but even more fell elsewhere, including 21.2" in Downers Grove.)

No, Zee isn't her real last name,
but Mary Ann could have been her first

Growing up near Grand Rapids, Michigan, Ginger--so named due to her Dutch father (she's also half Italian) learning English through a love of television, particularly Gilligan's Island--first became fascinated with the weather at age 8, when derechos (windstorms) and water spouts spiced up a summer spent with her family alongside Lake Michigan.

Her interest in studying Meteorology at Valpo was further inspired by her father's unique vocation: making tennis courts. "I noticed how upset people got whenever it rained when it wasn't supposed to. I guess you could say it [her chosen course of study] was a way of making daddy happy."

VU's meteorology program, in which Ginger began as a freshman, provided her the chance to embark on storm chasing excursions that greatly amplified her education. "It's such a great way to learn. You're able to watch your forecasts come true almost instantly," she imparted.

Without collegiate training in journalism, communications or broadcasting, a future in TV wasn't necessarily in Ginger's long-range outlook until an internship alongside noted meteorologist James Spann at the ABC affiliate in Birmingham, Alabama, proved quite enjoyable. While still in college, she was hired to deliver weather reports for WYIN in Merrillville, Indiana.

Coming to Chicago and WMAQ-TV in 2006 after stints in Grand Rapids and Flint, MI, Ginger is pleased with what she is able to provide to viewers.

Tomorrow's weather--and everything she says--remains entirely unscripted

"I hope to add to a little light in the middle of the newscast. Excepting days when the gravity of preceding stories or my forecast preclude it, I think it's OK to smile," she shared, while revealing that like most TV meteorologists these days, she doesn't script her weather segments nor use a teleprompter.

Although her talents have led to a guest stint on the Today show, in order to gauge how well she's heeding her abiding tenet for televised forecasts, Ginger admits to occasionally using a tried and true barometer: her mom.

"One thing I tell my students is to answer your viewers' main questions right off the bat. If I'm not quickly telling people what they most want to know, that's not good," Ginger remarked. "So sometimes I check with my mother to make sure I'm not overlooking the obvious."

As evidenced by my admission that I wasn't familiar with Ginger Zee until a couple months ago, a lot of people get their weather in ways beyond the local news. Rather than bemoan the new virtual reality, Ginger embraces both the benefits she brings to TV viewers and the advantages offered by the social media age.

"Especially in the case of extreme weather, an iPhone app can never provide the same sense of proximity and urgency that I can on TV. But with the Chicago vicinity being so vast, there's an inherent difficulty in giving each viewer a precise indicator of what they can expect, as weather can vary greatly over a 30-mile span and beyond. With Facebook and Twitter, I can provide more detailed projections, region by region. It's like a never ending broadcast."

Ginger recently donned a chocolate gown to benefit the
For The Love Of Chocolate Scholarship Foundation
She welcomes your feedback,
but please keep it clean
(and preferably not mean)

Although Ginger enjoys and appreciates her legions of online fans, friends and followers, and--as corroborated by her quick response to my request for an interview--reads and responds to all e-mail messages, some of the attention she receives is a bit untoward. As Christopher Borelli of the Chicago Tribune detailed in this 2010 article about her, Ginger is often the recipient of insulting, inappropriate, lewd, creepy and downright disturbing comments.

In the Borelli piece, she suggests that someday she'll "publish a book of crazy e-mails to meteorologists," but admits that it took awhile for her skin to thicken. "During my first two years in Flint, I cried every day. No one prepares you for getting ripped to shreds in e-mails and other online forums.

"I don't mind criticism and will take valid comments to heart. But when people get really vicious, not just about me but in ways that demean others around me, I'm sure to share those comments with my colleagues."

The above event benefiting the
Leukemia & Lymphoma Society
took place last May
From the Green Screen
to the Green Scene,

with lots of charity work in between

In addition to her somewhat arduous weekend schedule on Channel 5--between working morning, 5:00pm and 10:00pm newscasts, napping is a vital weekend activity, especially as she is narcoleptic--Ginger does environmental reports for the NBC station.

Her "Green is Universal" segment airs Thursdays at 5:00pm and "Ginger's Green Scene" is a weekend staple. Having spent much of her adolescence on an organic farm, Ginger clearly conveys that her environmental concerns go far beyond a nice way to increase her air time.

"Our air is dirty, our water is dirty. We have to do something about that. We have to take care of the Earth," she stresses. "Though friends keep it light by calling me the 'recycling police,' it's really quite serious.

"Don't you want to breathe clean air?"

Something else Ginger is deeply committed to is putting her time off work to good use, not just for herself but for many others. Although she is proudly a TV junkie, happily watching everything from 30 Rock to the History Channel to Jersey Shore--"it's important for us be entertained," she posits--Ginger spends hours each week teaching Meteorology at her alma mater, talking to elementary school students and participating in (and often hosting) many charity events.

Tonight (Feb. 10) she will be at the Chicago Auto Show's First Look for Charity; on March 19, she will host the Spring Fashion Show for the Brain Injury Association of Illinois, where she serves on the board. She is also on the board of the Chicago's Children Choir--I neglected to ask if she herself can sing, although I've read she was quite a hit at past Newsapaloozas--and each year assists with the One Step Camps through which Children's Oncology Services allows kids with cancer to enjoy a variety of outdoor pursuits.

"I usually do 2 or 3 charity events per week," Ginger told me, saying that she has particular affinity for non-profits that provide very tangible and local support to affected individuals and their families. "If someone asks and I have time, I'm usually open to helping out."

Sorry guys, she's got a boyfriend
(and a big dog)

Photo from
Last fall, Reed Timmer, who like Ginger grew up in Grand Rapids and became a meteorologist, asked her to chase tornadoes with him for the Discovery Channel series Storm Chasers, in which he stars. Having loved storm chasing in college, Ginger leaped at the invitation.

"He's breaking into science in a way that's so exciting to me," declares Ginger, who is now dating Timmer. "We're learning much more about how exactly tornadoes work, and in getting a better read on the vertical wind of each twister, it will eventually enable more resilient structures to be built."

As Ginger shared on Facebook and Twitter, last Saturday, Feb. 5--National Weatherperson's Day, though she suggests the title should denote Meteorologists--she was delighted by visits to the NBC Chicago studio from two special guests: Timmer and her beloved black lab, Otis.

With some recent national TV exposure and an enthusiastic fan base, it's easy for me to imagine Ginger being in a position to significantly expand her presence in coming years. But she claims she is "thrilled and grateful just to be working." Like anyone, she'll weigh possibilities as they present themselves, but while she's not adverse to becoming a bigger TV star, even perhaps beyond the realm of meteorology, it's clear that her passion remains where it began: with a love of the science behind the weather. Particularly in the Midwest.

Some days are hot, some days are cold. But at the end of most of them, I imagine that Ginger Zee genuinely enjoys her life, and whatever effect her expertise may have on yours.

Even as I conclude this in the dark of night, with the outside temperature below zero and feeling much colder, I expect that Ginger's own forecast for all the weeks ahead will be nothing but bright, warm and sunny.

Just as she is.

Ginger Zee, NBC 5 Chicago Meteorologist
Saturday 6am-10am, 5pm and 10pm newscasts
Sunday 6am-9am, 5pm and 10pm
Twitter: @ginger_zee

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is such a nice well rounded story about Ginger. Definitely one for the family scrapbook. I am glad the piece highlighted her charity work. She does more in a month than most of us do in a lifetime. She has remained grounded and humble. She is a good soul! :)