Local News

Forecaster's graphics make weather-watching a breeze

SITKA, ALASKA
Visit the Juneau Forecast Office's homepage.

Joel Curtis is the Warning and Coordination meteorologist in Juneau. He’s also the guy who shamelessly tries to make this incredibly geeky weather stuff sound cool to regular folk.

The National Weather Service has packed its website with visual features that allow you to look at almost any component of the weather — rain, wind, cloud cover, snow depth, sea height, swell, or even sea surface temperature – on a map. An animated map that loops through several days.

Curtis says it’s all about drilling in on what you need to know about where you are, or perhaps where you’re headed.

“Our text forecasts are very general for a very large area. But if you have internet access, and you’re able to look at these graphics, you can see where the winds are stronger, where the winds are weaker. If you happen to be traveling in that direction, that is really great information to know.”

Curtis is trained as a tactical meteorologist – someone who’s skilled in predicting weather in a very small area. He’s often called south to work on forest fires. Until recently, weather forecasting in Southeast Alaska didn’t require this level of fine focus. But that may be changing, as meteorologists build their forecasts on computer grids rather than paper maps.

Curtis says producing realistic, detailed weather predictions over large areas is challenging, “But we can do it. And one of the reasons we can do it is that, as the forecaster uses his experience, he likes to pick the very best model to make that distribution of the weather on a map that you can get on the internet right now and look at.”

So what’s happening, as best I can follow Curtis’s explanation, is that forecasters are now sitting at computers drawing these wind, temperature, and precipitation maps, and the actual written forecast – “Partly cloudy, highs around 65, light winds becoming northwest 10 mph in the afternoon” – is produced by a software text editor.

I’d bet that this is exactly opposite the way most people think the weather is done.

But there’s more. Since meteorologists are building forecasts on computer grids, creating a detailed picture of weather over large areas, there’s no reason why you couldn’t click on the map to get the forecast for literally anywhere.

Curtis says work is already underway to make this feature available to the public.

“You’ll get some sort of geo-spatial display like a Google Earth map. You’ll be able to move your cursor and click on a point. And when that cursor lands on a point within a 3 X 3 kilometer square of these grids that we’re actually drawing as forecasters, it will extract the information from that square, and give it to you as a point forecast.”

The scheme isn’t foolproof. Most everyone who lives in Southeast is aware of local weather phenomena that routinely fail to line up with the forecast. In Salisbury Sound, for instance, a north wind sometimes hooks left in Kakul Narrows, and blows hard out of the east. Curtis says this is why humans will remain important in the process.

“It’s just that at forecaster can’t possibly edit every single 3-kilometer square. So the computer models really help us a lot. We’re certainly going to edit the areas that we know the wind direction. For example, Chatham Strait: The winds in Chatham Strait are going to be north or south. Why? Because the channel runs north and south and winds follow the channel. So we’ll be editing the wind field in an area like that to make it realistic.”

And the revamped website also has reams of data. There won’t be any need to wonder whether a given day is a record high temperature, or if we’re behind on rainfall. In fact, looking at the precipitation graph, it’s easy to see why Sitka’s electrical department has serious concerns about how slowly our reservoirs are refilling.

 “All of this can help people make the decisions in their daily lives that they really would like to do. You can understand why we’re in a power crisis there in Sitka, because we’re behind on precipitation.”

Looking at the graph, I’d say Sitka is about 7-and-a-half inches below normal precipitation for the year. We should be at 30 inches so far, a little less than what Seattle gets in a full year. This fact doesn’t surprise Curtis. “In Alaska,” he says, “There almost nothing more important than the weather.”
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