Half Moon Bay resident Jan Null talks capturing the green flash and how forecasting helps his photography.
When weather happens, lawyers, doctors, journalists — and some unwelcome conspiracy theorists — come Jan Null’s way.
Null, a Bay Area native who moved from Saratoga to Half Moon Bay in 2019, has spent the past 24 years working as a forensic meteorologist, founding his own consulting business called Golden Gate Weather Services out of his home in 1998 after taking an early retirement from his job as a lead forecaster for the National Weather Service’s Bay Area office (he’s also worked as an adjunct professor and lecturer in meteorology at San Jose and San Francisco State universities). His day job involves helping lawyers and insurance professionals recreate past weather events like wildfires and floods, answering their questions on the weather conditions at the time a particular incident happened — “CSI: Weather,” as Null calls it. He’s been an expert witness in nearly 700 cases all told. (Null has also been consulted for his extensive research into pediatric vehicular heatstroke, raising awareness with tweets about heatstroke deaths around the country and through his website noheatstroke.org.)
When Null’s not lending his expertise, he’s using it to his advantage for landscape and wildlife photography, especially around the San Mateo County coast. The photos he’s shared on social media showcase sunsets and starry skies at familiar locales like Pillar Point Harbor, Pigeon Point Lighthouse and Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, as well as wildlife that he encounters: deer, coyote, and countless bird species. His captions underscore his appreciation for his subjects; a picture from May of three great blue herons bears the description, “Great Blue Heron family photo; even down to the teenager with an attitude and a Mohawk.”
Born and raised in Oakland, Null says he was interested in math and science in school and began studying astronomy in college before realizing the limited number of jobs offered in the field and turning to meteorology instead.
Null’s father was a photographer in the Army, managed a camera shop in downtown Oakland and taught photography at Laney College. Ironically, Null’s father didn’t teach him anything about it, but Null benefited from having good equipment around at a young age. He took a camera with him to Vietnam after enlisting in the Army in 1968 and has had one ever since, but his passion for artistic photography blossomed after taking a workshop in 2006.
We talked to Null about the biggest misconceptions surrounding weather and climate, observing the green flash and how he uses his forecasting knowledge in his photography. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
The Six Fifty: We just passed the second anniversary of the CZU Fire and the “orange sky day” anniversary is next month; to what degree do you think people have woken up to the fact that climate change is happening in our own backyard, and what’s the likelihood of another orange sky day?
Jan Null: I see the numbers of comments on posts and questions I get asked has dropped off. It’s gone from, “Do you believe there’s climate change?” to now I’m being asked about the impacts of climate change. I think there’s been a strong shift to the acceptance that it’s real and I see more and more people looking for solutions that are climate-friendly.
Right now the conditions of the forest universally around California are extremely dry and stressed. There are going to be other big major fires in the vicinity of the Bay Area that can give us a huge ball of smoke; the reason we don’t get them (bad wildfire smoke days) as often is our prevailing winds are from the ocean. But if we had another lightning event like we did in 2020, while lots of forest land and wildland burned around the Bay Area that’s only a couple percent of the total forest and wildland, so there’s lots of stuff to burn there. The problem has become especially critical where you have encroachment of civilization into wildland. A fire that might not have been a huge disaster before, when it burns into Santa Rosa it becomes a much bigger deal.
The Six Fifty: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about weather and climate?
Jan Null: This whole set of people get lots of misinformation and deny that the atmosphere and ocean are warming; that’s been proven science for 20 years. That shouldn’t even be part of the discussion. People I think don’t realize how complicated the atmosphere is. We can have really different weather between Half Moon Bay and San Jose; we can have 35 degrees temperature difference in the summertime. But if go across the length of Kansas, you might have a 2 degree temperature change this time of year.
The Six Fifty: What are your favorite places and subjects to photograph?
Jan Null: You’ve seen Pigeon Point Lighthouse; it’s really nice to have a focal point rather than just looking out at the ocean and seeing the sunset. If you can frame it with the radar dome at Pillar Point or the lighthouse, those appeal to me. As far as sunsets, except for the foggy days there’s always something, and fog has its own unique character which is just as beautiful. Between Poplar and Redondo beaches you have a huge population of raptors. That’s a natural spot, so I’m in that area a lot. There’s a Facebook group of fairly active photographers and we’ll share spots; we’ll say, “Did you know there’s this owl in this stand of trees?” It’s nice there’s this sharing of information about what wildlife there is.
The Six Fifty: What’s the most fascinating weather phenomena you’ve captured in the Bay Area?
Jan Null: Of late, it has been the green flash. I’ve been a meteorologist almost 50 years and always been aware of the green flash. It was not until I moved to the coast and was regularly photographing sunsets that I was regularly seeing it. There’s some element of green flash almost every night you have a clear sunset. It was somewhat happenstance that I started noticing it in my photographs. There’s a large cadre of meteorologists that go storm-chasing and that’s never had much appeal to me for whatever reason.
The Six Fifty: What’s your advice for people hoping to photograph the green flash or the Milky Way?
Jan Null: Be patient, have a good tripod. And you need a camera that has enough range of capability especially for Milky Way stuff. To watch the weather, that’s one thing where I have a step up on a lot of people. I can look at a satellite picture and see it’s clearing at Pigeon Point or that this front’s going to go through and there will be great thunder heads behind it. That’s a way I’ve been able to meld the two to be a better photographer, being in the right place and knowing what the weather is going to be.
The green flash is very hard to see with the naked eye and dangerous to do with binoculars. It will last a very short amount of time. I can set up a telephoto lens and have it on the screen on the back and I’m not looking directly into the sun, and I can trigger the shutter as I see it developing. It increases your chances significantly looking through a telephoto lens.
The Six Fifty: How has weather in the Bay Area shifted since your career began?
Jan Null: We’ve had many fewer rainstorms in the last few decades than in the ’60s through the ’90s. I think wildfires have gone up; you look at the number of acres burned, most recent years I think that can be tied to drought, and drought can be tied to climate change. We will have more big flooding events.
With social media there are now Facebook meteorologists. They’ve never taken a meteorology class in their life, but they get a following putting out outrageous forecasts without anybody fact-checking them. That muddies the waters as far as what events really happen.
The Six Fifty: How can people stay aware of Bay Area weather and climate beyond checking the forecast?
Jan Null: Have people dedicated to looking at the weather and doing good scientific weather stories. The Chronicle now has a weather team modeled after the Capital Weather Gang in the Washington Post. Almost every community college in the area has a meteorology class of some sort. Just be aware of the weather around you: Look at how the fog goes through the Golden Gate and heads over the Berkeley Marina; look for the things that cause rainbows.