WKU’s weather observation network keeps working despite pandemic


Katelyn Latture

There are people who enjoy the weather, and then there are the people who run White Squirrel Weather (WSWX). WKU’s weather observation network, which was founded in 2016, has not slowed down much since social distancing and sheltering-at-home orders were put in place this spring. 

“The weather never stops, so neither do we,” Olivia Cahill, the lead forecaster at WSWX and a senior from Dry Ridge, said.

The professional staff and the around-35 student staffers of WSWX have been busy preparing forecasts, keeping up with emergency services and even creating fun graphics to keep audiences informed.

Jonathan Ogelsby, a laboratory safety officer and instructor for Ogden College, created this graphic of Windy, the WSWX mascot, showing some tips to stay safe and positive during the coronavirus pandemic. Ogelsby has designed and created “probably 3,000 graphics” for WSWX, combining his love for science and art.

Josh Durkee, university meteorologist and meteorology professor, said “Joneo’s background is using design to communicate difficult topics,” and these graphics, paired with WSWX, effectively communicate to the community. 

Durkee and Ogelsby drew up the idea for WSWX on a napkin at Home Cafe in Bowling Green a few years ago. Durkee said they were looking at public service announcements, and there was nothing fun about them. In 2016, this napkin-drawn idea became a reality.

“We’re not for everyone, but we’re for people who want to see things differently,” Ogelsby said. 

WSWX has grown a lot since that day in Garrett and is now expanding due to its partnerships with Maker’s Mark and Jim Beam, which will bring its station total to 15. 

It now serves as WKU’s weather observation network and provides the university with forecasts so officials can then provide more accurate information to students. WSWX is at sporting events and has stations set up all over campus, including one in the football stadium, to provide the most accurate information possible. 

The often complex weather information tracked by WSWX is forecasted and then communicated by student staff, like Cahill and John Bowen.

Bowen, the lead emergency management operator and a fourth-year student from Louisville, continued work despite the spring semester looking different than planned. Even though the university doesn’t need forecasts for sporting events or commencement this spring, severe weather season continued in Kentucky.

“Not only are we working closely with the university but other entities in the community are depending on us,” Bowen said. 

WSWX provides weather services on a local level and offers a “more personalized experience,” Bowen said. WSWX partners with the Weather service, but larger weather providers don’t offer as accurate and hyper-localized information as WSWX. 

Cahill joined WSWX two years ago and knew she wanted to “be part of anything and everything” after her first class with Durkee.

“I truly love forecasting and everything that White Squirrel Weather stands for,” Cahill, who will start a teaching assistantship at the University of Georgia in the fall, said. “[I knew WSWX] would provide me with a learning experience I couldn’t get elsewhere.”

Since shifting to social distancing guidelines, WSWX moved its focus to inclement weather that would impact and possibly cause issues on campus and for the people remaining on campus. Cahill and Bowen both noted this made the staff adjust in new ways, especially in communicating and always being ready to forecast from afar. 

The weather and forecasting may persist, but that doesn’t mean WSWX staffers don’t struggle with the adjustment. However, they’ve been trying to stay positive in all of it.

Ogelsby and Durkee talk daily and laugh together. Ogelsby is working on a book that explains weather concepts. Durkee, who said “I come home to my kids, and I go to work with my other kids,” still talks to his students. Bowen and Cahill chat with friends on FaceTime and Zoom. Bowen has also been online gaming with friends, and Cahill recently ordered a puzzle from Shutterfly made from a photo she took on her storm chasing trip in Nebraska last summer. 

Cahill, who is graduating this May, is going to miss her fellow forecasters and professors, but she hopes to one day become a professor and possibly return to WKU.

“That’s when you know you’ve been a part of something good,” Cahill said, “ when you hate to leave it.” 

Features reporter Katelyn Latture can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected]. Follow Katelyn on Instagram at @katelatture_duv.