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So, What Do You Do? Emily Sutton, Storm Chaser

April 08, 2019

“So, What Do You Do?” is an MM series featuring extraordinary women in the kinds of jobs that make you sit up and say, “What’s that like?” Every week, another original entrepreneur, executive, artist, or scientist will own the answer by sharing what she does, how she does it, and why she does what she does. Up this week, Emily Sutton, meteorologist and storm chaser on adrenaline, freak weather, and sexist Tweets.

Emily Sutton, raised in the suburbs of Chicago and educated at the University of Missouri, has been loving storms since childhood. The certified broadcast meteorologist and professional storm chaser says, “When I was in the fifth grade, my dad would take me outside right before a summer storm and show me the direction it was moving. I was fascinated.” While in college, she joined the Mizzou Storm Chase team. On her first chase with the team, she saw a tornado in Oklahoma. “The next month,” she says, “I saw five tornados. I was hooked.”

Sutton joined the KFOR-TV 4Warn Storm Team in Oklahoma City in 2009. On Christmas Eve, just a few weeks into the job, she found herself covering the city’s largest blizzard on record. Fast forward to 2013, and she was on the tail of El Reno, an intense 2.6 mile-wide tornado with winds gusting over 300 miles per hour. Sutton’s bravery in the face of America’s fiercest weather events has landed her cameos on CNN, MSNBC, and the Weather Channel, plus features in the New York Times Magazine and Popular Mechanics. But ask Sutton, now 12 years into the weathercasting business, and she’ll tell you she’s just getting started.

Gets fired up about big weather events.

I get stoked about any severe weather or out-of-the-ordinary event, like if we have a freak warm weather day or freak winter storm. Tornadoes are my favorite. I don’t want anyone to get hurt, but it’s what I’m passionate about.

Ends up waiting, sometimes.

During tornado season, we’re at Mother Nature’s mercy and completely on call. Several days out, we can pinpoint where the bad weather will be. Then our chief schedules the storm chasers and meteorologists. If I know I’m going to storm chase, I’ll work my full morning shift, take an hour nap, then look at the forecast. The chief gives us our target spot—you want to be in place before the storm hits—and I head out with my storm chase partner in our station’s SUV, usually to the middle of nowhere. You have to wait for storms to bubble up. We track the latest updates from the National Weather Service on a laptop in the car. Sometimes you’re sitting there forever only to find out that you’re in the wrong spot.

In “normal” weather, starts her day at 2:15 a.m.

I’m the weekday morning meteorologist, so I get up around 2:15 a.m., drink my coffee, and go to the station. I put on makeup, do some forecasting, and then start on TV at 4 a.m. I film a weather hit for TV every five to ten minutes and do a weather report. At 7, I do a morning show for our sister station. Most of the week I get home around 9:30 a.m. I go to sleep at 7 p.m.

But when there’s a tornado warning, is on call 24/7.

At those times, we do wall-to-wall coverage—sometimes for 8, 10, or 12 hours straight. You go nonstop, bust through commercials, and have several chasers on the ground. We even have choppers that fly up next to the tornado. On a busy severe weather day, I might come back from storm chasing at 9 or 10 p.m. But it’s hard to sleep when your heart is racing and your adrenaline is pumping.

Has learned to appreciate the calm times.

I moved to Oklahoma for the severe weather. But [now] I like a balance. When I first started, it was just me in my apartment. Now I have to worry about my house getting destroyed and if my pets are OK. My husband, he can take care of himself.

Likes sharing her science smarts.

I try to incorporate different weather phenomena and weather words into my forecasts. Some people don’t care. They just want to know what to wear that day. But I try to make them care about the science. [I’m gratified] when I hear that I taught [a viewer] something new about science.

Lets negativity roll off her back.

I’m part of a closed Facebook group of female broadcast meteorologists and we’re a little sisterhood. We share ridiculous comments from viewers and rant about our bosses. One story that stuck with me was about a meteorologist who was pregnant. A viewer said something really negative on Twitter, like ‘She looks hideous—take her off TV.’ All the other female meteorologists retweeted it, saying how horrible it was. We have each other’s backs.

[But I did have] to learn to stop feeling bad about myself. As women, we’re really hard on ourselves. We’re taught from a young age that you need to look a certain way. People come out of the woodwork on social media just to beat you up. You have to have a tough skin.

Uses all parts of her brain.

I’m part nerd, but not all nerds can communicate efficiently. You have to be a good storyteller, creative with your graphics, and, at the same time, analytical enough to enjoy looking at data and figuring out the forecast. It helps to be an extrovert, too. We have so many public events—and people always want to talk to you, because they feel like they know you.

Is only too happy to share her heavy workload.

Delegate, if you can. We had a freak flash flooding event in Oklahoma City recently. We had to do wall-to-wall coverage, but thankfully another meteorologist came in and we tag teamed. Do what you have to do to get it done!

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Ashlea Halpern is the co-founder of Cartogramme and editor-at-large for AFAR Media. She edits New York Magazine's pop-up travel blog, The Urbanist, and writes regularly for Condé Nast Traveler, Bon Appétit, Airbnbmag, and Wired. After spending 3.5 years traveling Asia, Australia, the Arctic, and North America, she has settled in Minneapolis, MN—the most underrated city in the lower 48, bar none. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern and @cartogramme. Read more of Ashlea's posts.

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