by Lou Mancinelli
If you think you have seen the face of Phil Chapline, 63, owner of Chapline Computers, 8022 Germantown Ave., on the Channel 3 CBS affiliate in Philly, you are not imagining things. Chapline is now an on-air personality since becoming one of several Channel 3 “Weather Watchers” in the greater Philadelphia area.
Fifty or 60 years ago, weather predictions were far less accurate than they are today, according to Chapline. An incredible increase in technology has improved the field.
Since joining the Weather Watcher program last October, Chapline has contributed almost 400 observations — a few each day. Using his Davis Instruments equipment, he records different data from his store near Willow Grove Avenue. Each point is a part of the weather equation, like barometric pressure, temperature and wind direction.
Then he sends his information through the Weather Watcher’s portal, a system developed by CBS to collect weather information from hundreds of local amateur meteorologists who’ve signed up and are situated throughout the tri-state area.
During on-air broadcasts, CBS includes the observations sent in by Weather Watchers on its graphic. Sometimes the person’s picture and comments, like Chapline’s in February, are also included. So far 304 of Chapline’s observations from Chestnut Hill have been included. The on-air spokesperson mentions the Weather Watchers’ name and where he/she is reporting from.
According to Chapline, the best way to predict weather is to have as many sensors as possible. Each Weather Watcher, then, acts as a sensor. “The atmosphere is like this big pot of spaghetti sauce simmering on the stove,” he said. “Predicting the weather is like predicting where the next bubble will come up.”
Chapline talked about the 1900 Galveston hurricane in Texas known as The Great Storm. It killed 8,000 people. On that day the National Weather Service predicted sunny, beautiful skies.
“The Christmas blizzard of1909 paralyzed Philadelphia and badly disrupted New York,” Chapline recently wrote on Facebook in response to criticism of a recently predicted storm that never came. “Neither of these events was well predicted.”
Before Hurricane Sandy pummeled the mid-eastern shore in 2012, meteorologists predicted it would hit around Atlantic City and Cape May. If there were more weather sensors, Chapline wonders if we might have known about the dry spell that popped up in the atmosphere, causing the storm to smash the coast 100 miles north instead. Being prepared for catastrophe, Chapline insists, is the worthwhile result of predicting weather.
“We take a fairly cynical attitude towards those people, that the only reason they are on the air is because of the way they look,” Chapline said, referring to the stereotype of attractive TV weather personalities like CBS’s Katie Fehlinger or past anchor John Bolaris, who predicted the Storm of the Century in Philadelphia in 1999, another blizzard that never hit.
“Meteorologists are best at predicting what happened yesterday,” Chapline said. “They get a little fuzzy about today. They have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
Since he was a child, Chapline dabbled in meteorology. He used to build his own barometric pressure readers by connecting a vacuum to the end of a 40-foot tube and adding alcohol or water. Then he’d watch it rise and fall with the air pressure.
“You’ve sort of got to be a pocket protector kind of guy to do it,” Chapline, who lives in Whitemarsh and before that in Mt. Airy, said jokingly about the world of amateur meteorology.
Weather Watchers isn’t his first gig. The Weather Underground —not to be confused with the radical 1960s’ student group — is an online collection of thousands of amateur meteorologists who each day share weather information from their spot on the globe.
Since 2006, Chapline has posted his info to the group’s site, wunderground.com. On his page (search for KPAPHILA11) you can see that on Feb. 19, 2011, the high was 51.6 degrees, and the average temperature was 40.8. In 2007 the high was 37.7 degrees and the average 26. On Feb. 19, 2015, the high was 23.1 degrees, and the average was 17.9.
Raised in Mt. Airy and a 1969 graduate of Germantown High School, Chapline’s always been interested in the technical aspect of things. He studied the behind-the-scenes, production end of theater at Pennsylvania State University. After college he worked repairing electronics like televisions and radios. But he realized that market was thin. In 1986 he opened Chapline Computers, next door to its current location, which the store moved into 10 years later.
“We’re diversified,” Chapline said, when asked how the store competes with the likes of the Apple Store and smart devices. Not only do they build and repair their own computers, but they work on networks, host and build websites.
“I think 30, 40, 50 years from now, our weather predictions will improve by having more people out there making observations,” Chapline said.
More information at 215-248-4357 or chaplinecomputers.com.