I'm Albino, Legally Blind, and a Meteorologist
by Sam Herron

Reprinted from Insight a publication of the National Federation of the Blind of South Dakota.

My name is Sam Herron. I work as a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Rapid City, and I am legally blind. Before I tell you about my current job, I'll give some background information. My eye condition is the result of albinism, specifically oculocutaneous albinism. This is a genetic condition in which the body is unable to produce the usual amounts of melanin, or pigmentation. Albinism is typically linked to fair skin, very light hair, and poor vision. Due to the lack of pigmentation, the eyes do not develop normally before birth and during infancy. My vision is stable around 20/200 with glasses and I am very light sensitive. I also have a condition called Nystagmus, which is irregular eye movement.

While growing up I attended public school and used large type books when available. However, I was not happy dragging around the large books, and the pictures in the large print versions were not very good. Most of the time I used a magnifying glass to read books and papers. I would sit close to the board, but often had to borrow a classmate's notes or ask for the teacher's notes. I became a very good listener and was forced to memorize a lot of information to keep up with classroom activities.

When I was in 6th grade we studied weather. I knew at that time that I wanted to become a meteorologist. I had always loved weather as a child—the sound of a thunderstorm, the feeling of the wind, and even the simple beauty of a sunny day. I enjoyed using maps and making measurements.

After high school, I attended the University of North Carolina at Ashville. I continued to use regular texts with a magnifying glass. I graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in meteorology in the spring of 1993 and was immediately hired with the National Weather Service. After a few moves around the country, I came to Rapid City late in 1995.

My job is visually demanding. As a weather observer, I have had to observe cloud types, precipitation, and other elements; read various instruments, and use a computer to enter these reports. When reading instruments I am able to use a magnifying glass. Most computer programs that we use have some flexibility in the size and colors for display. This is important, because I spend about 90 percent of my work time in front of a computer!

I spend a lot of time collecting and processing data. We receive reports from many volunteer observers around western South Dakota and northeast Wyoming. I quality control these observations to ensure correct data and formats of the reports. Also, I monitor automated observing stations around the area, such as the Rapid City airport station, to make sure that the sensors are reporting properly.

A fun way in which we gather data is with weather balloons released twice each day. After preparing a battery-powered instrument which is about the size of a shoe box, I attach it to a large hydrogen-filled balloon and release it outside our office. The balloon is about 4 feet wide and 6 feet tall. As the balloon goes up through the atmosphere, reports of pressure, temperature, and humidity are relayed back to our computer. After the release, I quality control the data and make sure that the information is distributed. The data goes to Washington, D.C., where powerful super computers generate forecast information.

Another big part of the job is analyzing maps and computer output to make forecasts. Regardless of what may be heard from some television personalities, we all use the same computer information, and our performance is very much based on the performance of the computer predictions. Differences in forecasts can occur due to the various levels of forecaster experience and knowledge.

The main mission of the National Weather Service is to issue warnings of severe or life-threatening weather conditions. Severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings are often issued based on radar information. We often record severe events and then study them afterwards, so that we can better recognize the types of storms that produce severe weather. The radar displays that we use are very detailed. However, computer technology allows zooming in on areas of interest and use of high contrast colors to assist with interpretation.

My work involves some direct contact with people. I have given talks about weather safety, such as what to do during a thunderstorm. Also, I enjoy providing weather information for people with travel plans or to those who just want a more detailed explanation about weather conditions.

I have not requested or felt the need for major modifications in my office. I do ask for simple things like having computers set up so that I can sit close to the screens comfortably. I also request the cooperation of co-workers to have the lighting set to proper levels. I benefit from my ability to work well with others and ask for help when needed. I believe that my ability to memorize and having enthusiasm for what I do have been the biggest factors in my success and satisfaction with my job as a meteorologist.