Meteorologist Hutch Johnson: ‘Nothing Surprises Me’

The severe weather on Thursday, May 12, kept KVLY Chief Meteorologist Hutch Johnson live on the air for several hours as he tracked the wind, rain and tornados across much of the station’s 45-county viewing area.

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

Towering snowdrifts. Deep chills and heat that sizzles. Drought that sears the fields and forests, and torrential rains that turn acres into impromptu lakes. And the wind, always the wind.

Hutch Johnson has seen it all. After nearly 30 years as a broadcast meteorologist in North Dakota, there’s not much that surprises him … except possibly when he forecasts all of it within just a few weeks.

“Our weather seems to go in waves,” the friendly 6’4” TV weatherman observes. “We seem to get an extended period of dry weather, like last year, followed by an equally extended period of wet. Here in the Red River Valley, weather tends to be an all-or-nothing thing.

“Nothing surprises me.”

One week ago, he was emphasizing “all.” A major regional storm system later dubbed a “derecho” turned his evening forecasts on KVLY and KXJB into a prime-time event. Starting near Sioux Falls with violent winds that stirred up epic dust storms, the system moved north and east, with rising temperatures picking up moisture and dumping it in torrents across many of the 45 counties where Valley News Live viewers were watching the skies. While the worst of the storm collapsed before reaching Moorhead and Fargo, neighboring towns from Wahpeton and Fergus Falls to Alexandria were hit hard.

Hutch was on the air for more than two hours – a substantial chunk of time for commercial stations that depend on advertising revenue. Colleague Nathan Hopper was mostly behind the scenes, collecting reports and watching radar and bulletins streaming in from the National Weather Service. Hutch was in front of the camera, ad-libbing every word of his long soliloquy based on data that Nathan was feeding him.

“We’ve had a handful of truly memorable events since I came to Fargo 15 years ago,” he says. “They seem to happen every three years or so. This was one of them. It was pretty awe-inspiring.” But it was far from the worst. “On June 10, 2010, there were over 80 tornadoes in our viewing area and over 100 in all of North Dakota and Minnesota,” he remembers. The yearly average on the North Dakota side has risen from 17 to more than 25 in just the last 25 years. He adds a note of explanation: “The number of tornadoes is going up because more people, see, observe and record them. Twenty years ago, we’d get phone calls. Now we get smartphone video, and we learn about them almost instantly through social media. It’s a good thing. It saves lives.”

Born in Billings, Montana, Hutch was “bitten by the weather bug,” as he says, in the 4th grade. “We were in school when there was a tornado warning,” he remembers, “I ran outside and saw it – right over our house. I’ve been fascinated ever since by how the weather works.”

The family moved to Brainerd, Minnesota, as he started high school. He spent his final years attending high school in Denver, where he had classes in broadcasting taught by local meteorologists. “That steered me in this direction,” he reports. “I had one taught by a former local anchor, and we toured the stations. That seemed like a really fun way to make a living.” After graduation, he earned a bachelor’s degree in meteorology from Metropolitan State University there.

During his last two years and after earning his diploma in1995, Hutch worked with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency in Boulder as a research meteorologist. He helped develop remote sensing instruments like LIDAR, an acronym for “laser detection and ranging.” The work focused on reading the pulses of energy reflected off tiny molecules of snow or rain. “How far is it? How fast, and which way is it moving?” he explains. “It was absolutely fascinating.”

But the “ton of travel” his job required, he says, prompted him to look back at his first choice, television meteorology. After filling in at KGWN in Cheyenne, Wyoming (and commuting from his regular job in Boulder), he landed a spot as the only weatherman at KTVO in Clarksville, Missouri, near the Iowa border. A year later, he joined KXMB TV in Bismarck as its chief meteorologist.

Nine years later, in 2007, he accepted his current position. “I’d experienced all that North Dakota weather, but I discovered it’s quite different here,” he comments. “Bismarck and Fargo-Moor head have different micro climates. We’re more humid here in the summer. That means more, and wetter, thunderstorms. And because it’s a little drier out west, it can get hotter there. Where Bismarck might be between 90 and 100, this area might reach 82 or so. Of course, with the last year or so of drought, we’ve had some 100 degree days ourselves, so it can happen.”

As more of his viewers turn to the Weather Channel and Weathercock – both nationally based – he points out the value of staying with local broadcasters (and their own weather apps, like Val’s First Alert) to keep a more finely detailed eye on what’s headed this way. “The Weather Channel is in Georgia. Weathercock is in Pennsylvania,” he explains. “Their forecasts are straight from the computer models.

“On stations like ours, those forecasts are honed by local talent. We can interpret them through an understanding of local impact.”

Hutch and the weather crew – Hopper, Lisa Green and Summer Schnabel – work together on developing their forecasts. They use Weather Service data – “they do a terrific job” – but add their own interpretation of the data. While they develop key points as a team, each presents in their own way to their audiences.

One distinctive part of the VNL weather casts is their proclaiming “First Alert Weather Days” when severe weather is expected for at least part of the viewing audience. “Sometimes we’ve taken hits afterwards about ‘crying wolf’ too often,” he admits. “But we don’t issue warnings. We point out when the next day is likely to be an impact to our viewers … though not necessarily right in Moorhead or Fargo.”

His weather segments, he says, are intended to be educational as well as informative. He taught meteorology at Bismarck State College throughout his years at KXMB, then continued remotely from North Dakota State University’s studio until the pandemic. “Teaching meteorology is fun. Students come in thinking we report THE forecast. I show them that we don’t just parrot something we rip and read. As broadcasters and meteorologists, we make our own forecasts. They differ just a little from one another.”

The VNL chief meteorologist may be as well known for his Weather Kids segments as for the accuracy of what he says is coming up. He started featuring youngsters with an eye to the skies back in Bismarck and has continued it here, inviting some 35 boys and girls every year to share his screen time. One of those weather kids, back in his Bismarck days, took the experience to heart. Today Summer Schnellbach, who watched him on TV when she was a toddler, has joined her mentor as a member of the VNL weather team.

Times change. One of the times that has changed throughout Hutch’s 30-plus years of meteorology is the length of his must-see weather segments during evening newscasts. “Back in Bismarck, I got about five minutes for the main segment,” he says. “Now it’s closer to three and one-half, not counting the first and last snippets.”

That last bit is especially interesting: “It’s the ‘accordion’ of the newscast,” he explains. “Sometimes I have five seconds. On other days, when the news and sports runs a little short, I might have a minute and a half to fill.”

No problem. Like producing that continuous two hours of storm coverage last week on the fly, Hutch says, “It’s all about ad-libbing.”

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