Tim Spangler: “It’s been an amazing ride”

COMET’s Tim Spangler logs off after two decades

February 1, 2013 | One of the world’s foremost programs for meteorological training has been led by the same person for most of its existence. Today, UCP/COMET director Tim Spangler retires from his longtime post after more than 20 years at the helm.

“It’s been an amazing ride,” he says.

Tim Spangler
Tim Spangler (©UCAR, Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

Tim’s earliest days at COMET predate the creation of UCP itself. Formerly a meteorology professor at Northern Illinois University, Tim joined COMET as deputy director in 1990 while founding director Bill Bonner was still organizing the program from a UCAR-leased office building in east Boulder. Tim succeeded Bill as director in 1992, by which point COMET had moved to the newly acquired Foothills Lab complex.

Originally known as the Cooperative Program for Operational Meteorology, Education and Training—but now referred to by acronym only—the COMET Program was founded to bring weather forecasters practical insight from NCAR and other research hubs.

NOAA remains the principal sponsor of COMET, and much of the program’s training is still designed for National Weather Service meteorologists. But under Tim’s watch, COMET has served an ever-broadening array of other clients, providing education and training on topics that range from climate models to public health to the effects of volcanic ash.

“Roughly 20% of our budget today is associated with international projects,” Tim adds.

Online in a big way

COMET’s modes of training have gone through their own evolution. In-person residence classes lasting a week to a month or more—once the program’s bread and butter—were supplemented in the 1990s with modules on laser discs and CD-ROMs, and then with online distance learning. A few residence courses are still held, especially on complex or highly specialized topics, but COMET’s core activity is now its free-registration MetEd portal, which serves up some 700 hours of instruction to roughly 260,000 users in 200 countries.

“Our website today is the equivalent of 20 textbooks,” says Tim. The website’s material can also be put on a 32-gigabyte flash drive, he adds, which makes the content accessible to students in nations where Internet bandwidth is limited. “We can capture our entire website in something that’s the size of a pack of gum. This includes sophisticated education and training and guest lectures by the most famous people in our science.”

Among the many honors COMET has racked up during Tim’s tenure are a Brandon Hall Excellence in Learning Gold Medal (2004) and the American Geophysical Union’s Excellence in Geophysical Education award (2006).

How to (actually) retire

Tim is taking retirement seriously: he says he’s not planning to check his UCAR email account for at least a few weeks. A longtime resident of Nederland, Tim now lives in far south Denver, close to Roxborough State Park, where the nearby Arrowhead Golf Course will be a prime retirement focus. “I swear I’m going to get better at it. If we have an NCAR golf tournament, I’ll come.” He’s also planning a trip to the Northeast: “I have two sea kayaks that want to explore Maine.”

Hanne Mauriello will serve as interim COMET director during February. In March, she'll take the post of chief of staff in the UCAR Office of the President, while the COMET baton goes to incoming director Rich Jeffries, a veteran forecaster and a longtime leader of meteorological and oceanographic education and training in the U.S. Navy. Watch Staff News for more on Rich after he arrives in March.

Says COMET senior project manager Wendy Abshire: “Throughout his tenure, Tim has been a steadfast and creative leader of our program. He expanded both our breadth and our reach by supporting staff, setting new programmatic goals, and creating interest and demand for our Web-based training around the globe. He’s leaving us in a really good place, and of course we’re happy for him, but we are really going to miss him!”