BY REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Forensics don’t always look like an episode of “CSI: Miami.” In fact, for Richard Westergard of Shadetree Meteorology in Niskayuna, the field has never looked that way.
Westergard is a forensic meteorologist, and though his work could hypothetically involve the kind of icky calculations about decomposition that often factor prominently on television, it hasn’t so far.
It’s far less glamorous; the cases he most often consults on are colloquially known as slip-and-falls. He helps determine whether property owners are liable when someone gets hurt on a patch of ice, for example: How long had the ice been there before the injury occurred? Had the property owner had time to salt it? Was there even any ice in the first place?
“My stated goal is to present all of the objective facts to the client,” Westergard said. His client is usually a lawyer who needs information to build a case.
Though he can only work for one side or the other, either prosecution or defense, he said he rarely feels pressure to cater to the client’s goals.
“There are people who do forensic work that feel their job is to make the case of the attorney who hired them,” he said.
But he doesn’t feel that way, and he’s discovered most lawyers don’t either.
“The fast majority of attorneys are not interested in doctored facts,” he said.
When he started working with attorneys and courts as a forensic meteorologist, Westergard said he wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. His only experience with the court system was a few summonses for jury duty, and he’d never even been selected. But he said sticking with the neutral facts has served him well as he’s picked up insights into the court system.
That doesn’t mean his job is boring — it isn’t, although he assumed, at first, that it would be. The friend who first introduced him to the profession — a forensic meteorologist named Phil Falconer who worked out of Scotia — often stopped by the National Weather Service offices to gather data, which is how he and Westergard became acquainted.
“We got to be friends,” he said.
When Westergard retired from the National Weather Service in 2004, Falconer started showing him the ropes of forensic meteorology. In 2007, Falconer stopped taking cases and passed his clients over to Westergard.
While some cases are fairly routine, some are worth retelling. Westergard recalls one particular case where he was asked to investigate a 2009 injury in Ohio. A boy and his father had been doing yard work when the power went out; the boy walked to his family’s generator and flipped the switch, hoping to keep going with the project.
Instead, the recent high school graduate was shocked by a current of electricity that left him permanently changed. Westergard was able to determine that since no lightning had struck the area within five minutes on either side of the incident, the power company was liable for the accident.
“The cause was that the power company had not properly maintained their right-of-way,” he said. Again, the strict facts served Westergard well: Once he presented the information, the power company accepted responsibility, and the case was settled without a trial.
He’s also worked on cases that involved storm damage to property and wrongful death lawsuits after car accidents, such as a driver who steered into Schoharie Creek.
“When you put it all together it tells a story,” he said, comparing his work to a puzzle.
Before becoming a forensic meteorologist, Westergard was already an atmospheric expert. His trajectory started with the Air Force, where he was employed for just over seven years. Then, he used the GI Bill to work toward a degree; of all the subjects the bill would fund, meteorology sounded most intriguing, so that’s what he chose to pursue.
“In junior high and high school I had my own rain gauge and was a weather geek,” Westergard recalled.
After earning his degree, Westergard worked 31 yeers for the National Weather Service. He entered data, became a meteorologist in charge in Duluth, Minnesota, and later, the warning coordinator in Albany. In that position, his last before retirement, he acted as a liaison between the National Weather Service and the entities that deliver information to people who need it. He talked often with local governments in 19 counties, representing parts of four states.
But now, more than a decade after his retirement, Westergard seems satisfied to watch radar and mine lightning strike data from inside his office on Rosendale Road. Just feet from his home, he takes in the sight of greenery in his backyard while he works on cases.
Westergard’s professional calling is a fairly rare one. There are only a few hundred certified meteorology consultants in the country, and he guesses only half or a third of those currently take forensic work.
Earlier this year, to help with the caseload, Westergard hired Alicia Wasula, a PhD candidate in meteorology. Wasula, who studies the intricate structures of storms, had worked with Westergard on a case-by-case basis before that.
Despite a vast reservoir of knowledge about the atmosphere and its many variations, Westergard said if he’s planning an outdoor activity, he checks the weather just like anyone else. He can’t just look out the window and intuit the forecast.
“It’s like asking a carpenter to build you a house and not use a hammer,” he said.
But when he has the full force of his data behind him, his predictions are eerily accurate. Union College often hires him to prepare a forecast for their outdoor commencement, then monitor the weather as the big day progresses. On one occasion, he really hit the mark.
“I told them, ‘It’s going to start raining right around the end of your ceremony, around noon,” he said. “I was within five minutes. I made that forecast at 6 in the morning.”