NEW YORK (Reuters) - There is little about Joe Bastardi that fits the stereotype of the meek, wimpy weatherman.
Bastardi, whose title at the Accuweather meteorological service is “expert senior forecaster,” is brash, driven and outspoken. When he is not poring over weather maps he is likely to be pumping iron as part of his bodybuilding regimen.
The New Jersey native’s forecasts for hurricanes and long-range temperatures have been moving U.S. energy markets for more than five years, making him a minor celebrity among traders.
“I love the challenge of trying to beat an opponent. I look at the weather as an opponent that never quits, and the best you really can get is a tie with it,” Bastardi told Reuters in an interview last week.
Private weather forecasters like Accuweather have grown dramatically in U.S. energy markets, which rely on forecasts to gauge demand for heating fuels, as investors try to find an edge to boost returns.
But after a difficult 2006 when many forecasters’ predictions of an active U.S. hurricane season and cold start to winter were far off the mark, some market-watchers have grown skeptical of private forecasters, saying they over-hype their predictions.
Bastardi has not been immune to the criticism. Like many others, he called for a major hurricane season for 2006. In May he predicted that five hurricanes, including three major storms, would hit the United States.
Instead, most of the hurricanes veered away, spinning themselves out in the North Atlantic. Only two weak storms made landfall, doing little damage.
Bastardi acknowledged that his headline predictions did not pan out, but said his critics do not look closely at his work.
“It sounds like an excuse, but the hurricane forecast we put out had very low activity in the eastern and central Gulf of Mexico. I thought the tracks would go up the Eastern Seaboard, which they did,” he said.
Bastardi has been fascinated by weather since he was a child growing up near Atlantic City, New Jersey. His father is also a meteorologist, and family lore has it that his great-grandfather was the town forecaster in Bisignano, Italy.
Colleagues describe Bastardi as an almost obsessive student of weather who rises at 2:30 in the morning to study the latest data in order to release daily reports to his private clients by 6 a.m. “Power naps” take the place of an ordinary night’s sleep.
At home, Bastardi has four different computers linked to Accuweather, allowing him to review data while working out in his private gym, or while in bed or in the bathroom.
Bastardi credits his experience as a varsity wrestler at Pennsylvania State University for his self-discipline and will to win.
“The guy that was the captain of the team at the time was a legend in New Jersey, and he talked me into going out, and I got the living daylights beat out of me. I was a mass of contusions,” Bastardi said.
Rather than quit the team, Bastardi used the experience to motivate his training and to focus his academic life.
The intensely competitive Bastardi admits his mistakes “torture” him, and says he spent six months analyzing why he missed the warm spell that blanketed parts of the United States in January 2006.
“If a weather situation beats me, it usually will never beat me again. I want to be good enough to beat the weather before it beats me.”
Bastardi bases much of his forecasts on finding analogues with historical weather patterns. He believes that a multi-decade warming cycle, similar to the weather patterns in the United States between 1930 and 1950, is responsible for much of the current climatic unpredictability.
Gas traders’ over-reliance on computer models means they often fail to pick up what is really going on with the weather, Bastardi said.
“If you are going to worship a computer model, you are going to get burned at the stake given this kind of weather pattern.”
For 2007, climatic volatility will continue, Bastardi said, which will make for more hot summers in the Central United States and spawn more than the usual number of hurricanes.