CRYSTAL LAKE – Earth science instructor and meteorologist Paul Hamill is McHenry County College’s Tom Skilling.
Whenever there’s a summer storm bearing down on the college or a major blizzard in the forecast, college administrators turn to Hamill for critical advice on how and when to cancel classes to help keep students safe.
Hamill has been at MCC for the past 15 years, helping to transform the college’s weather monitoring systems, collecting climate data, and keeping detailed records. He also shares his passion in the classroom and helps train budding weather forecasters.
Hamill recently sat down to talk with Northwest Herald reporter Brett Rowland.
Rowland: How did you get started at MCC?
Hamill: Fifteen years ago I was working toward my Ph.D. in Madison, Wis., and I had seen this job opening. I told my wife ‘I’m going to get that job.’ So I went and applied and I got it. It was pretty shocking. She was upset that I left my Ph.D. program, but the way the job description was written – it was written almost like it was for me. It asked for meteorological experience with weather station experience, and I had been to Antarctica. They wanted National Weather Service experience, which I had. The job lined up with exactly what I was looking for to do for the rest of my life. Fifteen years later, here I am. It has been the best thing ever.
Rowland: I understand you serve as MCC’s own meteorologist. What kinds of things do you do?
Hamill: It has really grown a lot. When I first came, all we had was one little computer and a little weather station outside. Since then, we’ve grown almost into a weather laboratory where we have 12 monitors monitoring the weather nonstop. They’re viewable by the public, so students stop by, community members stop by, instructors stop by, everyone stops by to check it out when something significant is happening, especially in winter. It’s the hub of activity during severe weather, and I’ll go out there to clarify what is going on. We have two student weather technicians to help out as well. Usually, they want to go into meteorology and I train them how to forecast.
Other than making data available, I’m always on call or available for the administration when severe weather lurks. For example, the power outages we had in July. Trying to forecast that wind event was crazy. No one anticipated the extent of damage that we were going to have.
We meet quite often in the wintertime. Myself, administration, some staff, we meet to discuss what to do with school cancellations and how to get the word out. And we’re getting geared up again because you’ve heard the forecast from AccuWeather about this winter.
Rowland: Tell me about the February 2011 blizzard.
Hamill: [The administration] pulled me out of class because they were so worried. We canceled [classes] three hours earlier than we first anticipated. And it was a good thing we did, because it was coming and it was coming hard. It was a big storm.
I had warned them about that storm at the end of the weekend. The morning of the storm, we did an on-the-spot now cast and we realized that it was going to come just shortly after noon, so we canceled classes at noon. Luckily, everyone was able to get home. We were out of school for three days. It’s one people are never going to forget in their lifetime. It’s kind of nice. I’m not sure how many colleges have a meteorologist on staff to be able to do that.
Rowland: What kind of upgrades to the weather lab do you have planned for the spring?
Hamill: I’ve always been asking for more equipment. In the meantime, I’ve always been grabbing the spare parts from the college’s computer labs and trying to get the office up and running. It’s been that way for 12 or 15 years, but finally I have asked long enough for funds to get an upgrade in the weather office, so it looks like it’s going to happen.
We hope sometime in the spring or summer to go live with our weather website with all the climate data and all the cool stuff that we can show the community. And put on the forecast.
It’s a big deal. We’re kind of in a data void out here between Rockford and Chicago.