Friday, June 02, 2023

Ariel Schabes really hoped to see the aurora borealis that Sunday night in late February 2023. This was the second time on their trip to Iceland that Schabes and his wife, Rachaeli, were trying to spot the atmospheric phenomenon popularly known as the Northern Lights. They were originally scheduled for a Northern Lights tour the previous evening, Motzei Shabbat of February 25. To Schabes’ disappointment, the tour company had canceled due to cloud cover.

Schabes’ hopes were high when he and Rachaeli alighted from their tour bus on Iceland’s Reykjanes peninsula. Schabes had experienced the Lights once before, on a trip to the tiny Nordic island with friends while a college student at Rutgers University. On that last trip, he found himself awed by the curtain of green light extending across the heavens. Schabes considers this one of his life’s formative experiences. He planned to one day return and see the Lights again.

Now a married man, he was eager to share the experience with Rachaeli. Alas, as yet this second attempt did not live up to Schabes’ expectations. While he and Rachaeli glimpsed some of the vaunted green light, the cloud cover remained too heavy for a clear view.

For Schabes, a resident of Fair Lawn, the heavens are more than a passing fancy. Schabes is a trained meteorologist who works as a contractor at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, commonly known by the acronym NOAA. The federal agency is responsible for forecasting weather and monitoring the oceans and atmospheric conditions. For Schabes, a self-professed “weather nerd”, this career path is a perfect fit.

Schabes recalls his annual childhood checkups in his hometown of Englewood, when his pediatrician would ask him what he wanted to be when he grew up. From at least the age of 10, Schabes responded that he wanted to work in meteorology. Schabes’ interest in the weather and atmospheric conditions stuck with him, and he made a hobby of forecasting the weather for friends’ trips as a student at The Frisch School. When it came time for Schabes to apply to college, Rutgers was a no-brainer. “Rutgers has a really strong program in Meteorology and Atmospheric Science, and the vibrant Jewish community sealed the deal,” Schabes said. He matriculated in the Fall of 2013.

Schabes enjoyed his time at college. While he struggled with some of the high-level math requirements, he participated in Rutgers’ Weather Watcher program, which allowed him to produce and report weather forecasts to the Rutgers community. Schabes also landed a coveted internship with Dr. David Robinson, the New Jersey State climatologist. Schabes spent several years with Dr. Robinson analyzing temperature and precipitation patterns in different parts of the state.

Perhaps most excitingly, Schabes nabbed a gig as a Weather Intern with News 12 New Jersey. Schabes assisted in the production of weather forecasts for on-air personalities, including Justin Godynick, Sally Ann Mose and James Gregorio. While Schabes delighted in his view into the inner workings of a newsroom, he also learned that the weather industry poses unique challenges for the Orthodox Jew. “The weekend shifts are pretty rigid,” he shared. “Weather forecasting is an around-the-clock business.”

Schabes joined the competitive meteorology job market upon his graduation in Spring of 2018. “It’s a very niche field, and there are only so many positions available,” Schabes explained. After a job hunt that lasted more than a year, Schabes found his current job with NOAA at the Sterling Field Center in Sterling, VA. “I remember my first day,” he said with a smile, “Tzom Gedaliah, October 2, 2019.”

Schabes’ duties include writing instructional and training materials for meteorologists around the United States and its territories. Schabes is also responsible for developing user manuals and coordinating the logistics for a new upper-air weather observing system, currently being deployed around the country. This weather observing system, according to Schabes, is a giant weather balloon equipped with data-processing software and is attached to an instrument called a radiosonde. These balloons are released at least twice a day from hundreds of locations and transmit weather data back to the stations on the ground. This data is input to computer models used to forecast the weather nationwide.

Schabes’ contract with NOAA is ending soon, and Schabes is excited for the next stage of his career. “I’m really hoping to find a role that allows me to combine my experience with weather forecasting and meteorology-related logistics,” he said.

Two evenings after their underwhelming visit to Reykjanes, the Schabes’ drove along Iceland’s wide-open countryside, taking in the island’s natural wonders. “Iceland is so sparsely populated that when you leave the city you feel like you’re the only one there,” Schabes relayed. “It’s paradise for a nature and weather lover like me.”

Suddenly, the clouds parted. The Northern Lights stretched across the sky in a flourish of sweeping viridescence. Schabes was as awestruck as he was his very first time in Iceland. He recalled his reaction with a smile. “It was like seeing the hand of God.”

By Zvi Weisenfeld

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