Coming from a country that is hit by more tropical cyclones than any other place in the world, 25-year-old Robb Gile has literally been in the path of some of the most violent storms in history.
In 2014, he was in his family’s home in Laguna when Typhoon Glenda slammed CALABARZON “and I personally experienced how a strong typhoon manifests on the ground—the violent winds and the torrential rains,” he says.
Typhoon Milenyo (2006) was when he encountered the calm eye of a typhoon for the very first time. And in Tropical Storm Ondoy (2009), Robb was caught in a flash flood in Los Baños, Laguna, while he and fellow Boy Scouts were on their way back to Santa Rosa, Laguna, from a camping event.
Today, typhoons remain constant in Robb’s life. As a typhoon forecaster or weather specialist 1 at the national weather bureau PAGASA (Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration), Robb is involved in “the operational analysis, forecasting, and warnings of tropical cyclones and low-pressure areas suspected of becoming tropical cyclones,” he tells My Pope Philippines.
Not surprisingly, he’s busiest during a storm. Before the pandemic, Robb, one of four typhoon forecasters of the Weather Forecasting and Marine Meteorological Services Section at PAGASA, worked eight hours a day, five days a week. (Read: Ever wondered how PAGASA names PH tropical cyclones?)
In the event of a looming tropical cyclone, the four typhoon forecasters form two teams of two personnel—a duty typhoon forecaster and a supervising typhoon forecaster). Each team renders 12-hour shifts daily, including weekends, until the final update of the tropical cyclone is issued.
“We sometimes extend a couple of hours more to assist in the operational work such as answering phone calls of the public and media and preparing presentation material for use in briefing other government agencies,” Robb says.
Grace Under Pressure
It’s moments like these when Robb feels the weight of his responsibilities as a weatherman. “I believe the two biggest challenges of our job are coping with the stress that goes with our duties as forecasters, and the increased workload due to the forecasting section being undermanned,” he laments. “These challenges are especially evident during severe weather events.”
Still, millions of Filipinos who rely on Robb and his colleagues for weather updates wouldn’t know it, as the PAGASA weather specialist for the past four years is true grace under pressure. “[Good weather forecasters] work under the most intense internal and external pressure, multitask during periods of heavy workload, and explain in the way a layman can understand the complexity of the forecast and the urgency of the warning without sacrificing the scientific accuracy of your explanation,” says Robb.
It helps too “to keep your head cool when citizens ask the same questions over and over again,” he jokingly adds.
From Would-Be Chemist to Weather Forecaster
When it comes to careers, being a weatherman isn’t exactly top of mind. It certainly wasn’t for Robb, who finished his Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman in 2015, and set his sights on working in the field of drug discovery and natural products chemistry. (“Aka, looking for potential medicinal use from natural-occurring compounds in plants,” he says.)
But a genuine interest in weather forecasting, which began in college and heightened during the onslaught of Super Typhoon Yolanda in 2013, made him want to pursue a Master of Science in Meteorology at UP’s Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology in 2015. The plan was to enter PAGASA, a goal that was fast-tracked when he chanced upon a booth of the state weather bureau during a National Science and Technology Week exhibit. (Read: How Typhoon Yolanda Inspired This Millennial to Fight for Climate Justice)
Here he learned of PAGASA’s Meteorologist Training Course, a shorter route to joining the weather bureau. Long story short, Robb, one of 42 trainees of the 11-month course that year, graduated valedictorian of the class and was hired by PAGASA in December 2016.
Tracking a Typhoon
Modern technology allows weather forecasters at PAGASA to confidently report, with a high degree of accuracy, the presence of a typhoon before it enters the Philippine Area of Responsibility as well as the general direction it takes. (Read: Pope Sends Prayers for Typhoon Victims in the Philippines)
“The state weather bureau provides a 5-day track and intensity forecast for tropical cyclones with forecast performance on par with other meteorological centers in the Western North Pacific basin,” avers Robb. “The agency also has the capability to provide information as to whether there is a likelihood of tropical cyclone activity over the next 1-2 weeks.”
More significantly, Robb discovered through his calculations that the forecast error of PAGASA’s official track forecast as of November 2020 was the lowest since the agency was established in 1972! (Read: These miracle stories from Typhoon Ondoy will restore your faith in humanity)
“It was really moving to see that our efforts to improve the state of forecast operations in PAGASA are bearing fruit,” he says. “However, knowing that casualties are still mounting despite these efforts, we in the forecasting operations know that more work still needs to be done to make sure that the people on the ground will benefit from the improvements in the forecasts and warnings that we issue.”
‘It’s a Chess Match’
Indeed, despite the tech available to inform the public about an impending weather disturbance, weather forecasting, says Robb, is a humbling affair. It’s a chess match, as he likes to describe it, “where forecasters try to outmaneuver the forces of nature, only to be outsmarted by Mother Nature.”
“I learned how to respect (even more) the chaotic nature of the atmosphere, the forces that it can unleash on the ground, and the swiftness that these forces can claim countless lives and destroy, hundreds, if not thousands of properties in an instant,” he says of how his job has impacted him. (Read: We asked successful professionals: ‘What did you learn from your first job interview?’)
“Now, whenever I enter the operations room, I always remind myself never to underestimate the power that nature can bring upon us.”