Jul 12th 2010, 00:00
021 caught up with Derek van Dam at caramello’shis favourite haunt on kloof street. For many Capetonians, listening to e.tv’s daily weather report on the 7pm Prime Time News is a deeply entrenched evening ritual. After all, living in a city that can boast several seasons in one day, it helps to have some guidance as to what to wear. Perhaps this explains the disproportionate number of females glued to the weather broadcast? Or can the sudden enthusiasm in the last few years for e.tv’s weather report be attributed to weatherman Derek van Dam’s twinkling blue eyes, charming personality and mid-western American drawl that makes cloud formations sound deeply fascinating?
It’s scary to think that the gregarious Derek could have been a reclusive artist. “Not a lot of people know this about me, but when I was really young, like four, I actually wanted to be an artist.” But by
the age of eight he’d set the compass of his life in the right direction and decided to be a weatherman. As a young boy, he was fascinated by the elements: “The weather has always intrigued me. I was the kid who wanted to run out in the rain. Like everyone, I used to look at the clouds and see animals in them. Eventually I wanted to understand why they formed the way they did.” Derek’s home town in the state of Michigan has some pretty dramatic weather that made a deep impression on young Derek: “Where I come from, tornadoes are common, and I’ve
experienced snow storms that, within minutes, have blocked the door with several feet of snow.”
Derek’s father took him snowshoeing and crosscountry skiing, instilling in him a love of the outdoors and deepening his affinity for weather. But it was when Derek developed a fascination with the local weatherman that he knew what he wanted to do when he grew up. “This guy was a
big deal – everybody knew him.” Witnessing the stream of greetings that Derek receives as we chat, it’s clear that Derek has done a good job of emulating the popularity of his childhood hero.
Derek arrived in Cape Town on a wing and a prayer. After majoring in Meteorology from the Central Michigan University in the United States, Derek was employed as a meteorologist for
the television station NBC.
A committed Christian with a philanthropic bent, Derek joined his church’s voluntary humanitarian work project in Swaziland. Before returning to America, he took a trip to Cape Town. Whilst here, he visited the e.tv studio and met the general manager of the weather department, who, clearly taken with the young meteorologist, made him a job offer. One year later and Derek was back in Cape Town as head of e.tv’s weather department. Today, aged 27, after reading the weather for only eight years, he’s in a position that he could never have achieved at such a tender age in America, where the competition between weather reporters is fierce.
Derek marvels at the twists and turns his life has taken, saying, “I could have taken a left or right turn and would never have arrived here. And boy, would I have regretted that.” Derek heads up a team of three meteorologists who assist him in unlocking the secrets of the weather. Derek explains that meteorology is more maths than mystery: “There are 14 mathematical equations that govern the state of the atmosphere, so that everything you see in the weather – clouds, rain, etc. – can be related back to one of these 14 equations. Meteorologists need to know how these equations interact and change to make a weather forecast.”
Completing the e.tv team is a climatologist who deals with long-term forecasting. Derek’s job is three tiered: he’s a meteorologist, a computer graphics artist and finally a television presenter.
The majority of his work takes place behind the scenes. He explains that, “Viewers see our end product, which is three minutes of television, but they don’t see the several hours of work we
put in every day to get that brief report.” Derek’s morning begins with an indepth weather analysis
based on different computer models that are run by various organisations around the world. He
explains: “We study a global model that looks at the large-scale influences affecting the weather. We look at all levels of the atmosphere to get a kind of snapshot of the weather at that specific
moment in time. Then we compare it with other models that take into consideration local variations.”
Derek puts this information into graphical form, which he then presents in the way that has endeared him to audiences. He says, “It’s easy to talk about the weather because I’ve worked
with everything up to the final point. I’ve got no script; it’s all impromptu. I think that’s the real way to do it because weather changes so much that you have to think on your feet.” According to Derek, being a weatherman is all about bringing personality into the job. “People can see right through a fake presenter – someone who’s contrived and just doing it to be in the limelight.”
He relaxes in front of the camera by pretending that he’s telling a friend about the weather and forgetting about the couple million viewers watching.
The Mother City’s unruly weather patterns are not easily fathomed and have clearly presented a challenge to the young meteorologist. “Cape Town is a special place,” Derek says, shaking his head and laughing heartily. “Cape Town’s got all kinds of things manipulating the weather. We’ve got two oceans that are colliding, and elevation change in a big way. The temperature variation between a few kilometres is immense. So, you really need to know how the local topography
affects the weather. I’m still learning that. Boy, I tell you, I’ll probably be learning about that for the rest of my life. I’ve got to say that Cape Town has to be one of the more complex cities in South Africa to forecast. We’ve all seen the weather change three or four times in a day. But I think I’ve got a good handle on it now – better than when I first started.
Then, there would be days when I’d announce that it’s a perfect day to go up Table Mountain. Later I’d see the tablecloth and know that no-one would be following my prediction.” So, how accurate are Derek’s daily forecasts? “I’m the first person to admit that meteorology is basically an educated guess because mother nature doesn’t care what Derek van Dam has to say;
it will do what it feels like. But having said that, meteorologists across the globe are at a point where they can forecast 24-36 hours ahead and really get it on the button. After three days, your percentage of accuracy declines. I really think our forecasts are highly accurate. I would guess at maybe a 90% success rate.
We double-check our accuracy by recording what we predict against what actually happens so that if a similar situation arises in the future, we’re in a better situation to predict the outcome. Every single day I’m learning something new.” So what are the strings that pull our winter weather puppet? Derek explains: “In my weather bulletin you’ll often hear me refer to steering winds at the upper levels of the atmosphere. In the summer time, the steering winds steer
the storm system south of South Africa. But in the winter time, the steering winds move north, closer to South Africa, and Cape Town is the first place to feel the impact of the storms.” Derek has been astonished by the polarities in Cape Town’s weather. In August 2008, in the first few months of arriving here, Derek got a taste of the potency of Cape Town’s winter storms.
“If you weren’t looking at the ocean, you were an oddball, because everyone was out staring at the ferociousness of the ocean. It looked like a monster about to engulf the city. I’d never seen
anything like it before. It was really intense and showed our vulnerability.” Then, in 2009, the weather pendulum swung to the other extreme and Derek witnessed the raging fires that besieged the city in the dry season. Derek revels in the diversity that this fluctuating climate creates: “I love the fact that you can see deciduous trees and palm trees in the same city. There are not a lot of places in the world that have got that.” For the last six months, Derek has been focused on global climate change and is currently travelling the country making speeches about this issue.
He says, “It’s only recently that I’ve made the decision that climate change is a man-made problem. Through my research, I’ve concluded that there’s indisputable evidence that humans are causing global climate change. We’ve reached a tipping point and arrived at a moment in our human history where the human race will be defined by our decisions over the next few years. I see it as my role to separate fact from fiction and science from sensationalism. Science is not perfect. There may be some aspects of global climate change that scientists are wrong about. I want to be a global climate change communicator: to convey what it could mean, how to react to it and how not to be scared.