There is nothing in this vast universe that meteorologist Jim Cantore loves more than thundersnow.
There may, in fact, be nothing anyone in this vast universe loves more than Jim Cantore loves thundersnow—which, as the name suggests, is the simultaneous appearance of two distinct meteorological features, a phenomenon that takes place in just 0.07 percent of all storms. One video clip, captured in February in Plymouth, Massachusetts, shows Cantore's ice-slathered face looking momentarily stunned when lightning flashes amid the snowflakes, then he begins screaming, "You gotta be kidding me! Yes! Yes! Yes! You can have your $500 million jackpot in Powerball or whatever the heck it was, but I'll take this, baby!" while he leaps and attaboy-pumps his arms. To watch Cantore in this sort of rapture is to watch a man bursting with an ecstasy so complete you begin to feel a bit embarrassed, like you've caught him unawares in the throes of passion, a man liquefied and consumed, his very being blown to particles by the weather equivalent of the money shot.
Thundersnow Jim is something of a television phenomenon, someone whose gyrations have made him so beloved to millions of television and weather watchers that over the past decade he has become the face of The Weather Channel. Mere hours after his latest thundersnow histrionics, the channel was already featuring the footage in an ad as its slogan, "It's amazing out there," floated onscreen.
Well, amazing for Cantore, anyhow. Outside of television, in the realm where people have to find their way to work in twenty-five inches of snow or deal with the sudden absence of their roof, the weather can seem less beguiling. Cantore knows this, and for the past three decades he has made a living advising people when and how to cope with myriad unfortunate circumstances, often from the site of the disaster. His presence is so synonymous with severe weather that Weather Channel president David Clark jokingly calls him "the face of impending doom."
In late January, Cantore joined mainstay Sam Champion as coanchor of AMHQ, the newly revamped morning show that is The Weather Channel's most watched program. He wound up making his predawn debut from the streets of Boston, where he was reporting on a blizzard that dumped more than two feet of snow. That would begin a stretch in which he would, over a period of a couple of weeks, make it home for just one twenty-four-hour period, after which he would fly to Virginia Tech to film a segment, then immediately catch another flight to Massachusetts for yet another onslaught of snow.
That, lumped together with all he has seen and experienced—the devastation of Katrina and Sandy, the constant moving toward things everyone else is running away from—can seem thrilling and energizing, but also something more. Even for Thundersnow Jim, that kind of grind could just get . . . exhausting. Enough to make you wonder what keeps Cantore going.
Cantore is clambering into his Toyota Tacoma when he spies the yellow ticket tucked under the left wiper blade. "What the?" he mutters, craning a thick arm out and around the windshield, stretching to pluck the citation like he would an errant weed. It's a couple of weeks before the Boston blizzard, and Cantore has just finished several hours of morning-show rehearsal. His mood isn't great. He started his career at 22 on the dawn shift, a brutal schedule he was happy to trade in for intimate brushes with hostile weather events—and now it's sinking in he will need to start rising again at 3 a.m. for work, which doesn't thrill him. Nor is he particularly psyched about being asked to bring the perky persona (wearing a dress shirt no less) that viewers expect from morning hosts. But mostly he is really annoyed about the parking ticket he now clutches in his hand. Cantore squints at the ticket, snarls slightly.
"Screw it," he says after a beat, then wads up the paper and tosses it out the window. He turns and grins. "Let's get the hell out of here."
Cantore pulls out of the lot and speeds down a road outside The Weather Channel's Atlanta headquarters. "My job is to explain the facts to the public," he says, sailing through a red light. "If there is a big weather outbreak, it's like game day. How can I communicate this message? My tone? Are people going to all of a sudden go, holy shit, he is serious! Maybe I need to pay attention."Cantore speaks of his time in front of a camera as his "burden of responsibility." He likens his job to being a fireman. There when you need him. Ready with a plan or escape route. Over the years his cachet has grown to the point where he sometimes usurps state and local governments as the source of information and advice when a storm lands. And in January, city officials in Boston asked for updates on forecasts and precipitation totals—and he didn't hesitate to share what he knew. That wasn't the first time that had happened.
"I take weather pretty serious," Cantore says. "Let's face it, you can mix in entertainment, beautiful people, but at the end of the day, it is a service." Clark says Cantore has nurtured that ethos at the network: "He's seen as a protector of sorts. He feels like he's part of an army doing a larger job, and there's kind of a code that comes with that."
Which is maybe why he seems a little stilted during dress rehearsals on the AMHQ set, wearing a fitted maroon button-down instead of the L.L.Bean windbreakers and baseball caps he usually sports in the field. As the rehearsal wraps, Champion pulls Cantore aside, explains he held back on the forecast numbers because he wanted to let Cantore deliver the statistics. "I'm passing you the baton."
Cantore nods. "That's the home run," he says. "The stats."
"We're covering weather like no one else can," Champion says, giving Cantore an affectionate dap on the shoulder. Still, Cantore looks a bit awkward forcing banter with him and the show's other regular meteorologist, Jennifer Delgado.
Later, over lunch, Cantore says he lacks patience for what he calls fake small talk: "I'm my own boss in the field. No one is telling me what camera to look at. It's just me and the friggin' weather, you know?" He jabs at his salad with his fork, the sound startling.
The eldest of four adopted children, Cantore was raised by postmaster father James and stay-at-home mom Betty. The family lived in a Victorian farmhouse in Craftsbury Common, Vermont. As a kid, Jim could often be found doing chores, especially in the garden. He liked the way hard work made him feel.
When he was 16, Cantore awoke one day with the notion to pedal his ten-speed to Rutland and back— eighty-four miles of mountainous road. "I think he just did it to prove to himself he could," says his brother Vincent.
Studying meteorology at Vermont's Lyndon State College, where friends called him Rocky because of his resemblance to Sylvester Stallone, Cantore found an outlet for his high-voltage wiring: He loved being in front of the TV camera. Cantore got several job offers after graduating, but opted for The Weather Channel in 1986 and never left. "They tried to shape me in the beginning," he says, "but what you see is what you get with me. People don't realize it's all ad-lib. There's no teleprompter telling Jim what to say." (Speaking in the third person is not a rare occurrence for Cantore, who also calls himself the Can Man, among other monikers.) "Everything I do is off the cuff. What I'm feeling, what I think people need to know."
Cantore shrugs. "Look, on a sunny day, when nothing is going on, I'm not your guy," he says. "Sam's great at that. But when the game is on the line and the shit is hitting the fan, I want the ball."
As much as the weather is a source of joy for Cantore, some experiences haunt him. Covering Katrina, he and his team were stationed in Gulfport, Mississippi. It was the first time he had "seen and smelled death," and he was ill-equipped for the devastation. They spent eighteen days immersed in the ruin. "It was a bad scene," he says. "I saw casinos sitting in the middle of the frickin' highway. Boats four stories up in buildings. Imploded."
Even worse was the aftermath. "Everyone is spilling their guts. They just lost everything, and you feel awful because you can't do anything except talk into the camera, 'Back to you.' It's like, fuck this, I just wanna grab a chainsaw and help these people get out. I was numb when I came back."
Cantore knows the odds are he will witness another Katrina. Possibly worse. He recites the facts: escalating temperatures, the atmosphere's CO2 concentration clocking in at over 400 parts per million, rising sea levels. "Storm surge starts there," he says. "That's where the game gets played. We've built onto the coasts everywhere. And now that we're seeing more and more hurricanes, we realize, oh shit. A Sandy in Miami?" He shakes his head, eyes wide as poker chips.
In some ways The Weather Channel is the only true reality television left, the one remaining chunk of programming that cannot be modified to suit a desired narrative. And what makes Cantore so watchable is not so much that he can digest and report a forecast but that he inhabits the same space we all do: the discombobulating territory between shock and awe. Watch his past appearances on Storm Chasers and you can see it in his face as he watches twisters tearing up the landscape—that blend of thrill and dread. Cantore understands our innate desire to court fear, to watch the storm roll in even as we know what it might cost us, to categorize and measure the forces that dwarf us. He knows, too, that the only course of action that remains for viewers—and the rest of us—is to adapt, to do what we can for one another.
Before he covered his first storm, in 1992, he extended a three-day forecast to five days, Cantore says. No one had done that before with a hurricane. Seconds after Cantore got off the air, a producer handed him a phone, saying Bob Sheets, then director of the National Hurricane Center, was calling. "I thought they were joking with me," Cantore says. "Then I heard his voice, and I thought, oh shit." Sheets asked Cantore if he'd lengthened the Hurricane Andrew forecast. "I told him, 'All I said was, if it keeps going in this direction, everybody from the Outer Banks to Florida needs to pay attention.' And he yelled, 'Don't do that again! I've had every emergency manager up the entire East Coast calling me!'"
Cantore apologized, but he realized something for the first time: People were watching.
On the morning of his AMHQ premiere, ensconced in Boston, Cantore provides updates on what will become several weeks of record snowfall. Liberated from the set, his joy is palpable. Between takes he goofs around on snowshoes, tweets photos of himself eating a hunk of compacted snow like it was a foot-long sub. On air he is both energized and stern in his admonitions to stay off the roads. He litters his reports with bro-speak: jacked, crushed, pumped, amped. The sky doesn't flurry, it "pukes snow." But between takes, he retreats to the van to study what is coming next, to focus on how he can help people plan, what he can tell them that might provide some relief.
Cantore calls me on his way to fly to Virginia Tech after his brief stop at home. He sounds a bit subdued. "Quite frankly, these last three weeks are killing me," he says. "I'm crying uncle. Actually, I'm on my fifth uncle."
The weather will eventually settle for a spell, and during these types of interludes Cantore tries to escape to his cabin in the mountains of northern Georgia. He chops wood. He builds fires. He plants Japanese maples. Divorced since 2006, Cantore often takes his kids, Christina, 21, and Ben, 19. Both were born with Fragile X syndrome, a neurological disability akin to and often overlapping with autism. "At first I was pissed," Cantore says of the diagnoses. "Once I accepted that some things are going to be easy and some aren't, it got better."
Cantore takes fatherhood as seriously as he does his forecasting. When ex-wife Tamra was pregnant with their first child, Cantore reached out to his own birth mother via the adoption agency. But when they located her, she chose not to reconnect. "The agency said, 'Well, Jim, unfortunately about 15 percent of the time, parents don't really want to acknowledge the situation, and you are one of those 15 percent.'" He shrugs. "It hurt then. Not anymore."
Cantore is used to swallowing his feelings. It comes with the job. He tries to fully reckon with one storm before moving to the next. People count on him. The sun is setting as he pulls his truck into the airport lot, gathers his bags. Strangers ask where he's headed. He answers patiently, then turns his attention back to our conversation. Why does he love the weather so much? "Simple," he says. "It's the one thing I can't control."
Cantore tells me that the way he sees it, "There is no tomorrow." There is only now. This day. This moment. And in this moment, there is a giant storm brewing up north, and he intends to fly headlong into it.