How to Make Better Weather Small Talk

Weather affects each of us every day. Yet, judging by the insane amount of mind-numbing, “Boy, it sure is cold today” elevator conversations I have, surprisingly little is known about it.

Jonathan Martin, Professor of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is here to help. He’s loved weather forever, been a professor at Madison since 1994 and has a tremendous amount of knowledge to share that can help you take your weather small talk up a level.

We chatted recently about what he talks about in elevators, his favorite weather-related movies, why it’s so hard to predict the weather and much more.

Jonathan Martin, atmospheric and oceanic sciences professor.

To start, how did you first become interested in the weather?

I’m not sure I can explain it. I’ve been interested in it since I was conscious. I grew up in Northeastern Massachusetts where in the winter we get a lot of snow, and I had a had a paper route since I was eight. I think I was even enticed to do that job by the prospect of getting up and being the first one to make footprints in the snow. I also watched Neil Armstrong come off the lunar module in July 1969 – I was only five years old at the time, and my dad let me stay up late to watch that and I remember going outside and looking at the moon that same night and thinking, “Wow, there’s people out there walking on the moon.” When I had a chance to do the papers in the morning in a place where it snows and that kind of imagery was in my head, I feel like I never had a choice.

As a professor, do you enjoy small talk about the weather?

Yeah, I do. Occasionally I get tired of it but it doesn’t feel like shop talk to me. I talk about it casually whenever somebody starts it up. My wife gets a little bit nervous in situations where maybe I’m on the elevator and someone says something like, “It’s really hot out there today, or I hope it doesn’t rain tonight.” I might say something because I peeked ahead at the current forecast or have been interested in the current weather, and I’ll start talking about it to them at a level that’s a little more than they probably expected.

When I first moved here to Madison in the fall of ’94, the first winter we were here, we got a pretty good snowstorm in early December and I knew my neighbor pretty well by then but it had only been a couple of months. We’re out there shoveling the snow and he said, “This was quite a storm, huh?” I couldn’t help it. I mean it’s my favorite kind of weather and I talked to him for five minutes straight and he just looked at me – he’s got a good sense of humor – and he said, “You know Jon, you bring talking about the weather to a whole new level,” so that kinda sums it up.

What do you talk about in elevators?

Well yeah, it’s weather talk. I won’t start it unless someone else starts it usually but if they do I’m certain to throw in a few words, maybe 50 or so.

How do you take weather small talk to the next level?


[You] might know when the last time it was as hot as today was – what is the record high for the day in question and when did it occur? Things like this are obvious first line positions to extending the conversation. Another might be to add a comment about the attendant humidity (or, more rarely, the absence of it). Then, perhaps a comment regarding the fact that moist air is lighter (i.e. less dense) than dry air – just the opposite of how it feels. Baseball announcers routinely imply that on a hot, humid day the AIR is what keeps the ball in the ballpark because the air is “heavier” on such days. In reality, the air is “lighter” but stays in the ballpark because the players are verging on heat exhaustion.

What’s your favorite weather-related movie: Twister, The Perfect Storm or Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs?

I’d actually have to say Groundhog Day. It starts out with a snowstorm. I love that. That’s very appealing to me, and then on top of that it’s hilarious once it gets going. It just keeps on happening over and over again. What that means to me is each one of those nights are gonna be snow storm nights he’s reliving, so what could be better for me? Perfect. If I could live every single night for a period of 100 days with a snowstorm, I’d love it.

We’ve had a lot of crazy weather in the past year. Which unique weather event is your favorite?

I like big snow storms with strong winds. I like to see the snow sculpted by the wind. When I know both of those variables are going to be part of a storm, I get really greedy. I get excited for the amount here in Madison. A 6-inch snowfall accompanied by 20-30 mile-an-hour winds, where you can hear it howling and you can hear the branches of the leafless trees banging outside your window at night while it’s snowing, that’s my favorite weather event. And then the next day it leaves a totally transfigured landscape. I really love that.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask what you thought of the whole “Bomb Cyclone” phenomenon recently?

I was called by a number of news outlets regarding the “Bomb Cyclone”.  First of all, the term has been in colloquial use in meteorological circles for at least 40 years and describes a phenomena that is not uncommon, but always noteworthy – storms whose central sea-level pressure drops by at least 24 mb in 24 hours. Central pressure drop is perhaps the leading measure of intensification, so “bomb cyclones” are rapidly intensifying cyclones. There are perhaps as many as three dozen of these events every cold season in the Northern Hemisphere – many of them intensifying rapidly at sea. When such a storm develops intensely close to or over a heavily populated region, it garners more than its due share of attention. That is what happened in early January.

Do you have a weather-related nickname?

No, I’ve never had one.

I feel like something with snow should be coming your way.

Steve Ackerman and I, who are on the radio and write a column for the Wisconsin State Journal as “The Weather Guys”, had somebody design this publicity poster and it takes Steve and myself and makes one of us look like the snow miser and one of us look like the heat miser – it would have been perfect for me to be the snow miser but they made him the snow miser. I’m not sure why.

They didn’t consult us. That was the one chance I had to get snow somehow associated with me.

It is true every snowflake is unique?

Undoubtedly, that’s true. A snowflake is an amalgamation of thousands of water molecules so when they’re falling through clouds, they’re falling not only through water vapor which can deposit itself onto the snow crystal as a new small piece of water in solid form. They also fall through a tiny liquid water droplet which can freeze on contact. Even if you could create snowflakes that were identical on their initial moment of conception and they fall through the cloud, they can’t come out looking exactly the same on the microscopic level. They are not going to be the same because of the environment they go through, so that’s absolutely correct.

Why is it so hard to predict the weather? People give meteorologists a hard time.

Yeah, they do. I think part of the reason is people, whether they’re conscious about it or not, really do care about the weather and it effects them multiple times every day. But the weather is hard to forecast because we’ve got an atmosphere on top of solid Earth. Let’s talk about just the atmosphere first. It weighs six million billion tons, and it’s gas. It’s in a state we don’t deal with frequently in our day-to-day lives, so it’s a complicated mixture of gasses that sits on a planet that has mostly water as its boundary on its surface, and that water surface is fluxing new gas into the atmosphere all the time in the form of invisible water vapor. So even at its simplest description, we have an extraordinarily complicated terrarium in which we live and then we’re filling it with various amounts of solar radiation depending where you live on the earth.

So trying to make sense of that set of inputs, the gasses with water vapor, inputted with energy that’s variable from the sun, that is going to kick up a circulation in this 6 million billion ton atmosphere and then deliver weather to a local spot is a nearly impossible task. The fact we’ve made the progress we have made is simply a miracle. It’s the greatest miracle in the second half of the twentieth century in my opinion that we now have pretty accurate 1-5 day forecasts delivered to us on our phones.

Part of the reason it’s taken for granted is because so much of the forecast is right. People I think know that, but they don’t register that as much as they register the frustration when it’s wrong.

Probably close to 8 out of 10 times the forecast is right.


Want more? Check out The Weather Guys articles in the Wisconsin State Journal:

Did Climate Change Kill the Dinosaurs?

Does this Cold Wave Prove the Earth is not Warming?

Is There Snow and Ice on Mars?


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