BOONE — “Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it.”
Ray Russell, a computer science professor at Appalachian State University, didn’t set out to prove Mark Twain’s wisecrack wrong. He just wanted to get a better forecast for snowstorms across the High Country of Western North Carolina.
What started as a hobby with the weather station kit his wife bought him for Christmas almost 20 years ago has boomed into a thriving online business.
Clicking on RaysWeather.com, an average of 300,000 unique monthly visitors troop to about a dozen domain names that cover Surry County at the Virginia state line down the Blue Ridge to Asheville and Waynesville.
In the mid-’90s, when the Internet was in its infancy and accessed with clunky dial-up connections, weather data came out of Raleigh, covering everything from Wilmington to Murphy. Russell was frustrated that weather reports couldn’t predict when it would snow in Boone.
When he set up his backyard station, Russell had Boone’s first live feed of weather data, which he began to post daily on the Appalachian State University website.
What was a part-time hobby became a professional business. With a home office, his daughter handling bookkeeping and his wife selling advertising, the computer scientist turned into a weather entrepreneur. His staff has grown to nine paid employees, including a team of four meteorologists.
“We started with zero investment and literally pulled it up by the bootstraps,” he said.
Russell admits he’s never had a business class in his life. Once he ran into Joedy Eller, former chairman of the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce on Main Street.
“Ray, you have done the best job of branding your business that I’ve ever seen,” Eller said.
“What’s branding?” Russell asked.
Early on, Russell showed his personality, adding the Fearless Winter Forecast. It was somewhat of a stunt to help promote the Woolly Worm Festival in Banner Elk. Going head to head versus a woolly worm with science wasn’t difficult, he said.
And his weather watchers aren’t afraid to put a little wit into their forecasts, compared with the more generic National Weather Service bulletins that cover multiple states.
Russell nearly did away with his popular Fearless Winter Forecast after hits and misses in recent seasons. It galls him that people remember miscalls for lots of snow rather than the accurate day-to-day forecasts his team predicted throughout the winter.
Witness the Great Flizzard of 2010.
When the NWS issued a blizzard warning Feb. 11, calling for heavy snowfall and gusting winds for all of Buncombe County, Ray’s forecasters jumped into the fray.
“Calm down ... there will be no blizzard in Asheville today! The NWS Blizzard Warning should have been reserved for north and west of here closer to the TN/NC line.”
That prediction held true. Asheville saw only a dusting of occasional flurries. Meanwhile, Mars Hill reported 7 inches of snow that afternoon.
Not to badmouth the federal agency. “They’re hardworking folks who have to deal with shrinking resources,” Russell says, adding federal employees do a great job forecasting the big picture.
But the online forecasts of bigger private weather companies do bug him, especially when visitors type in a ZIP code and hope to find a real local forecast.
“These big weather sites, they don’t have a clue what the temperature is in Weaverville. They don’t have a station there, they’re just extrapolating,” Russell said. “We have real weather stations with real forecasts with real people.”
RaysWeather proves popular with professional observers as well.
“It’s an outstanding resource,” said Pamela McCown, a meteorologist who most recently worked with Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College’s Institute for Climate Education.
Based at Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport in South Carolina, NWS forecasters must paint the big picture from north Georgia through Upstate South Carolina into the Western North Carolina mountains.
“That’s a huge forecasting task with so many different microclimates,” McCown explained. “That’s the real benefit from RaysWeather, that he can focus on those mountainous areas.”
“It’s a good place for one-stop shopping to find observations from around the area,” said Doug Miller, associate professor at UNC Asheville’s atmospheric sciences department.
RaysWeather links some 80 weather stations across the region, including the campus station at UNCA.
The business’s most recent hire is David Still, who joined RaysWeather.com in February as director of business development.
After graduating with a communications degree from Appalachian State University, Still got his certificate in atmospheric science at UNCA and worked as a TV meteorologist in Memphis, Tenn.
Still had fond memories of RaysWeather from his days as Boone undergraduate. “I’d been following him since 2000. I reached out to Ray to see what he was thinking long-term. He told me about his parkway project.”
The company just completed an ambitious expansion, adding 22 stations and eight webcams up and down the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway.
RaysWeather partnered with the National Park Service, the nonprofit Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, along with Appalachian State, to launch specialized weather websites: BRPweather.com and BRPwebcams.org.
Now visitors or just the curious can keep tabs on what’s happening weather-wise on the parkway that weaves through the region’s highest elevations.
“We want to get travelers better information about what to expect up on the parkway, particularly with weather closings,” Russell said. “We were able to do the whole project for $70,000, and it didn’t cost the taxpayer one dime.”
Russell wants to see more stations extending into Virginia and could see the RaysWeather model exported from the mountains to other outdoor recreation communities like Pinehurst or popular beach towns in the Carolinas.
But for now, he likes forecasting what he knows best: mountain storms and sunny days that he gives a ranking of one to five golf tees. One golf tee equals a day fit only for “polar bears or ducks.”
Five golf tees — “Bosses, you better stand at the door. (Or will bosses be the first out the door?)”
That kind of personality in weather predictions wins local fans and unexpected testimonies.
During this interview at Russell’s Boone offices, a man knocked at the door and poked his head inside. He wore a housepainter’s cap and splattered coveralls.
“This is RaysWeather?” he asked. “Where’s Ray?”
“That would be me,” Russell volunteered.
“Love your site,” the painter said, and ducked out.