At the end of February, Tom Skilling will wrap up his legendary career with a final forecast of WGN-TV. How did he become one of the best meteorologists in the country? Preparation. We observed his extraordinary process over a three day period in March of 2023 as he tracked a snow storm headed for Chicago.

WEDNESDAY MARCH 1, 2023

It’s a 40-degree day in Chicago, and Lake Michigan is stirring ahead of a predicted snowstorm. Skilling is working in his home office at a North Side high rise condo building. He starts every day at 8 a.m.

“You know, looking out here at the lake, it is a fascinating place to watch the weather,” he said.  

Among a library book about Chicago history, weather events, and climate change, Skilling is seated at a desk with an Apple computer and a large monitor.

“This is where I spend probably about 8, 10 hours a day, in front of computers and all,” he said.

He’s extracting data from more than twenty weather service models, and satellite imagery from around the globe. 

He pointed to a green blob on the screen that was hovering over Texas.

“Here’s the weather system that will be ours on Friday,” he said.

Skilling is a true scientist, an AMS certified meteorologist, who has taught courses at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He’s running complex experiments. He pointed to data on the screen. 

“You can take the temperature of this cloud; you can figure out what altitude it’s at and use it as a proxy for the wind there,” he said. “So, you develop wind fields that you can feed into these computer models, at different levels of the atmosphere.”

As Skilling scans the models from the National Weather Service, Europe, and Asia, he’s finding a concerning disparity in predicted snowfall totals.

“They range from zero to as much as 14 inches,” he said.

Using his own a color-coded system, he charts the numbers on sheets of paper and runs his own math.

“Each line here is a different computer model solution on what the temperatures may be in Chicago,” he said. “Then I can go on and average them out each day and figure out how much above or below normal each day is going to be.”

In meteorology the method is known as “ensembling,” a melding of instruments like a musical symphony.

“So, there is kind of a method to the madness,” he said.

By 3 p.m. he’s worked almost a full day and is ready to head to WGN to start his official workday, where he’ll provide weather reports on the 5, 6, 9 and 10 p.m. newscasts.

“These weather forecasts don’t drop out of the sky,” he said. “They take a little bit of preparation.”

THURSDAY MARCH 2, 2023

Inside of the WGN weather center, producer Bill Snyder is monitoring the storm, and preparing graphics until Skilling arrives.

“We have a basket of graphics that we use routinely,” Snyder said.

Snyder and Skilling have been working together on WGN’s nightly forecasts for more than a quarter century. Snyder is on the phone with 4 p.m. producer Adrienne Balow. “It’s a tricky forecast,” he tells her.

When Skilling walks into the weather center, a make-up artist is waiting to powder his face.

Soon, he’s constructing the graphics that will fill his weather segment and referring to the color-coded sheets.

“This is where all the preparation comes home to roost,” Skilling said.

FRIDAY MARCH 3, 2023

By Friday, the snowstorm looks like it will just miss Chicago. In the WGN newsroom, executive producer Sam Julien is planning the evening newscasts after talking with skilling.

“The storm is farther away than we originally thought,” Julien said, but noted the forecast still called for snow to impact a large swath of the viewing area, just not the city of Chicago. “We’ll plan on leading with weather in all three hours,” she said. 

Filed crews are being sent to the area likely to be impacted, south of Chicago’s city limits.

Meantime, in the weather center, Skilling is putting the finishing touches on the five o’clock forecast.

“As I sit and look at all these maps, and all these numbers and all, the thing that always runs through my mind is if there’s a big weather change that’s going to slap people in the face, I want to try and give them a heads up that this is going to happen,” Skilling said.

At 5:15 p.m., Skilling is set for his main weather segment in the studio, where he’ll seamlessly step from the anchor desk to the green screen, and deliver the forecast, which shows a sharp cut-off for snow, a forecast as disparate as the models originally predicted on Wednesday.

“A lot of balls in the air on a night like this,” he said. “I’ll tell you that, you feel like a juggler. You’ve got data coming in. You’ve got half the viewing area getting one kind of weather and the other half getting an entirely different weather.

At 5:21 p.m., he’s done — at least until the next deadline.