Meteorologist Reid Wolcott lives and breathes weather. His division of the National Weather Service in Las Vegas is responsible for a 70,000-square-mile area (roughly the size of the state of Washington) and for those flash-flood warnings on your phone and TV. Wolcott and his team work tirelessly to get that information correct—and keep people safe. He took a break to talk to the Weekly about his busiest time of year, chasing storms and the movie that changed his life.
Was meteorology always your goal as a career? Yep. Since I was 10.
Really? For me, it was because of the movie Twister. I saw that and knew that was what I wanted to do for a living. And it’s funny, because there were a number of people in my major at University of Washington who were in it for the exact same reason. It’s also one of the reasons I met my wife, because she was also interested in meteorology at the time, and she got into it because of that movie as well.
So the movie didn’t make you want to be a storm chaser? There’s an opening scene where there are people looking at computers in the severe storms laboratory, and they’re talking about storms merging. I said, “That’s what I want to do. I want to be behind the scenes.” Back in the day, I wasn’t an outgoing person, I was very shy. I was a nerd as a child. Things have changed since then.
I always think storm chasers are a little insane. I did a little bit of storm chasing in Oklahoma with my wife two years ago, and it’s different when you’ve got a meteorologist doing it, versus someone who doesn’t have any inkling of what’s going on. We have some training and know what we’re looking at on radar and have a general idea of what’s about to happen. We also know where the boundaries are—where you go and don’t go. It was a lot of fun, and I actually saw a tornado.
Given that Las Vegas doesn’t have hurricanes and tornadoes, is it still an exciting place to work? It is. There’s interesting weather no matter where you are in the country. In Las Vegas, it’s the monsoon season. That’s where most of our high-impact weather comes from.
When is monsoon season? We have two busy periods—the end of July to the very beginning of August, and then mid-August through [September 8]. With flash flooding or severe winds or hail, we have to have multiple people on radar, and sometimes we need to divide just looking at the radar between two or three people. We can have six people here at any given time, whereas normally we staff two or three. This is a 24/7, 365-days-a-year job.
Are any aspects of our recent weather in Las Vegas unusual for this time of year? Yes, the number of influences from tropical storms. We’ve had three that impacted our weather, and we almost had a fourth, but it took a turn at the last minute and didn’t impact us. In an average monsoon season we’ll get two or three days of high humidity and thunderstorms, and then we’ll have a break for a few days, and we’ll rotate through that cycle every week. But this year we had basically a two-week period where we were very busy, then we had a two-week break, and then we’ve had basically three to four weeks of just nonstop thunderstorm activity.
You’ve been doing this for seven years. Do you have a dream assignment? I’d love to mix San Diego and Norman, Oklahoma. (laughs) I’d love to forecast tornadoes, but I don’t want to deal with the climate of Oklahoma when I’m not working. My wife and I talk about it all the time, but Las Vegas right now is actually perfect for us. This was a great place to come to after Riverton, Wyoming, my last assignment, where there’s a Walmart ... and nothing else.