A Look into the Life of a Forensic Meteorologist

With The Weather Channel’s highly anticipated series, Storm of Suspicion, coming to the network this fall, we thought we’d introduce the We Love Weather community to an integral part to the show: Dr. Elizabeth Austin. Dr. Austin is a forensic meteorologist who has used her weather knowledge in countless cases involving all types of crimes from insurance fraud to murder. How did she get into the field of forensic meteorology? How many people are in that profession? Are there correlations to weather and criminal activity? Find out below.

Describe what forensic meteorology is for our weather fans that might not know.

Technically, the term ‘forensic’ means ‘for litigation purposes’. So forensic meteorology means to reconstruct the weather for litigation purposes. But I have been called to date photos and do other things that weren’t necessarily for litigation.

When did you first know you wanted to be a forensic meteorologist?

When I was in graduate school I worked at the Desert Research Institute, which is affiliated with the university I was attending. There was a new master student that came in while I was working on my Ph.D and he had come from the National Climatic Data Center, the official weather data archive for the US. He had been interning there and and had been exposed to forensic meteorology, and one day he mentioned it. I had never heard the term before and thought to myself, “What is that?!” So I immediately picked his brain and after we talked I decided that’s what I wanted to do. That conversation is all it took!

Are there a lot of forensic meteorologists across the world?

No there aren’t. We all know each other since it’s such a small group. There are all different kinds of forensic meteorologists though. For example, some people just focus on hurricanes and tropical weather. Some focus on air pollution meteorology. In addition to there not being that many, we each have our niche areas, making even smaller groups. Here at Weather Extreme, we have six forensic meteorologists, three of which are hurricane experts.

Which 3 skills would you say are the most important to have for your job?

The first one is remaining calm and collected under pressure. As an expert witness you’re held to a much higher standard. It can get quite heated and attorneys can get aggressive, so staying calm is essential to the job. Second, I love my work. It’s critical to love what you do. Third, I’m able to break down highly scientific subjects for people. These cases are very complicated so being able to teach a jury or judge what happened in a way they could understand and visualize is crucial.

What was the first case you worked on as a forensic meteorologist?

It was a fog case in Ely, Nevada. At the core it involved a highway patrolman who was pulled over by another highway patrolman, and the piece I focused on was fog and visibility. But the overall case had to do with a lot of different factors- intoxication allegations, politics, and family drama. It was interesting because it was a very complicated case, and also a bench jury, meaning there was just a judge. I testified twice. That was a good trial because there was an accident reconstructionist there. After it was over I told him it was my first case, and he told me I’d have a very long and successful career.

Cases you work on involve a slew of crimes. What are some examples of criminal activity where weather can be involved in some capacity? (ie homicide, insurance)

So in one of my earlier cases, I was hired by an investigator– sometimes it’s an insurance company that hires me, sometimes an attorney, sometimes an investigator. He worked for Farmer’s Insurance as a fraud investigator. There was a worker who was filling a propane tank in someone’s yard and he said he tripped on boards that were covered by fresh snow and needed a full knee replacement. I looked at the weather and not only had there not been snow the day he claimed to have gotten hurt, but there hadn’t been snow for weeks! All I did was write a report and the insurance company realized it was fraud and denied the entire claim. So that’s an example of an insurance one (I work a lot of those).

Another is a double murder death penalty. A man was accused of murdering an elderly couple. He broke in at night and tied them up, robbed them, and murdered them. He and another man ended up being convicted for that crime. The weather angle boiled down to the lighting conditions because an eye witness said he saw the man enter the couples’ house. So I went to scene of crime and made measurements and calculations of the terrain, like the incline of the hills and what lighting was around. I also made directional measurements of moon positions since the crime happened in the early morning before the sun came up. I had to time everything out and look at the state of the atmosphere, like humidity and cloud cover. Luckily with all my cases, I don’t have to prove anything with my work, I just have to present the facts of the atmospheric conditions. That’s a very important part of forensic meteorology, or forensic anything. You can’t stray out of your area of expertise. If you do they’ll file a Daubert Motion against you and have your testimony thrown out or excluded prior to even testifying.

I also testified in federal criminal court about a potential IRS bombing. Someone had tried to bomb the IRS building in Reno, NV. This case had to do with rainfall. There was a witness that said he saw the accused buying the bomb making material at this place and he said it was raining that day. It’s interesting how weather can come into play!

Which weather elements are typically the most helpful when solving a crime?

Temperature, humidity, winds, precipitation, and sun. It’s really a case by case basis, sometimes it’s something small or all the above. For timing a murder, temperature and humidity and conditions around where the body was found are most important.

In your time as a forensic meteorologist, have you noticed any correlation between specific types of weather and criminal activity? If so, what are the correlations?

Number one thing: As temperatures rise, criminal activity increases.

Do you have any statistics on correlations between weather and crime?

When the weather heats up, crimes increase. Hot weather has long been associated with increased violence. The United States, for example, experiences significantly higher crime rates in cities when the temperatures rise appreciably above the city’s average.

Extreme rainfall leads to increased conflict among people, as is seen in India. Some countries, like developing countries in Africa, are more susceptible to conflict and wars when agriculture is threatened by drought conditions and hot temperatures.

Why should people tune into Storm of Suspicion?

What’s so interesting is how weather plays a role, not just in how the crime is committed, but also how it impacts the crime scene investigation. Sometimes it’s freezing cold, it’s windy, and the people investigating the crime scene can’t always see. For instance, in one case in Storm of Suspicion, they initially thought someone had been shot in the head, but it turns out the person was hit in the head with a hammer. Another interesting one we highlighted in the show is where weather helped catch the criminal after the crime was committed. The criminal was sneaky… Police kept trying to collect his DNA and he wouldn’t drink from cups or lick an envelope they gave him to put a form in. They were tailing him one day and he ends up spitting on the ground. Normally you couldn’t do anything with that, but it had just rained. There were fresh rainwater puddles all around and his spit landed in a puddle. So they were able to scoop it right off the top of the puddle to take his DNA! There are all sorts of ways weather comes into play, which I think viewers will find interesting.

Do you have to get really creative every time you solve a case or are there tactics you know to do once you evaluate what sort of crime was committed and what you have to analyze?

In terms of the puddle scoop I mentioned above, that was the first time it was ever done. They didn’t know if it would work, but it did! You have to think on your feet and come at it from different angles.

Keep an eye out for new episodes of Storm of Suspicion on Sundays at 8/7c, only on The Weather Channel!

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