Campus News

UGA weather forecasters place high in national tournament

Athens, Ga. – At almost the same time that tornadoes and violent weather were devastating the South, a team of weather forecasters from the University of Georgia made a strong showing in a national weather forecasting contest.

UGA geography professor John Knox reached the semifinals of the WxChallenge forecasting contest post-season individual tournament. As one of the last four forecasters remaining in the single-elimination tournament, he will receive a trophy and a permanent listing on the forecast contest website.

UGA graduate student Aneela Qureshi, who is studying for a Ph.D. with Knox, reached the round of 16 in the post-season forecasting tournament-the best showing ever for a UGA student in this competition. Two other UGA students, graduate student Tony Bedel and sophomore Jared Rackley, also won individual awards for forecasting during the regular season.

“I can’t quite believe it,” said Knox, who teaches in the UGA atmospheric science certificate program. “In 2008, I made the Elite Eight, but I attributed that to beginner’s luck.”

Knox, who recently received tenure and promotion to associate professor, has taught at UGA since 2001. He won the 2010 T. Theodore Fujita Research Achievement Award from the National Weather Association for his work on clear-air turbulence forecasting. In 2011, Knox received a Sandy Beaver Excellence in Teaching Award from UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

WxChallenge is managed by research staff at the University of Oklahoma, well-known for its tornado research. The contest is open to all undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students, as well as higher-education faculty, staff and alumni. It consists of making next-day forecasts of high and low temperatures, maximum sustained wind and precipitation amounts for a series of 10 U.S. cities during September through April. More than 1500 forecasters and over 50 institutions in the U.S. and Canada participate in the contest each year. The 64 most accurate individual forecasters during the regular season are invited to compete in a three-week-long, “Big Dance”-like post-season tournament.

To reach the Final Four, Knox defeated four higher-seeded opponents in a series of two-day forecasts for Oklahoma City, Okla., a meteorologically unpredictable location in April.

What Knox’s called his “sweetest win” was his last, over Georgia Tech atmospheric science professor Robert X. Black. Regarding his Elite Eight competition, Knox said, “I’ve known Rob for 20 years, he has a Ph.D. from MIT, and he won the regular-season WxChallenge championship a few years ago. He knows weather forecasting. So, topping Rob to reach the Final Four was really special.”

Knox lost in the national semifinals to eventual national champion Ryan Stinnett, a participant from perennial power Mississippi State.

“I lost on the same day that my hometown of Birmingham, Ala., was ravaged by a tornado, which put things in perspective. Forecasting contests are fun, but the real-life job of a forecaster is to give the public a heads-up and to help save their lives. That day, instead of competing for the national championship, I was posting messages on Facebook to let my friends in Birmingham know that they needed to take cover immediately.” Ironically, Stinnett also grew up in Birmingham just two miles from the path of the April 27 tornado.

UGA’s WxChallenge team just finished the 2010-11 regular season in fifth place, behind national champion Mississippi State, Penn State, MIT and rival Georgia Tech.

Knox assembled the UGA WxChallenge team in fall 2007 as a way to help teach undergraduates how to forecast the weather and has managed it ever since. This year’s UGA team was the largest to date, with 20 members participating all year long: Knox and 19 students in geography at UGA (7 graduate students, 10 upper-division students, and 2 lower-division students).

For information on the event, see