Under the radar: A day at the National Weather Service office
January 12, 2014
No day at this forecast office is the same.
It sounds like a cliche, but it really does depend on the weather.
Electronics systems analyst Chris Kornkven said his most memorable day was when the powder was so deep around the radar up on the Grand Mesa, the team that was sent to check on it via snowmobiles found itself stuck and in need of rescue.
Service hydrologist Aldis Strautins found it hard to pin down just one memorable day. He said a whole season of recent flooding in Colorado and the dozens of ensuing media interviews he had to do ranks at the top.
And how about intern Travis Booth?
His was more of a simple memory.
“A white Christmas in Grand Junction,” he said.
When the weather is sunny and clear, the National Weather Service's forecasting office in Grand Junction is eerily quiet.
A large television screen that hovers over the entire office displays live pictures of cities all along the Western Slope, confirming the sun is shining and all is well.
On a slow day, the only real source of noise here is a radio that plays classic rock.
But when the weather turns bad, all the phones start to ring, and everything gets a little more intense.
Newspaper reporters from Vernal to Steamboat to Durango call to get the scoop on what's going to happen weatherwise.
City officials across the Western Slope need the forecast days in advance to know how many snowplow drivers they should have on hand.
And skiers just want to know how deep the powder is going to be tomorrow.
"You might think we just sit around here in this office," Jim Pringle, Gran
d Junction's warning coordination meteorologist, said from the forecasting office that is tucked inside a busy regional airport, "but we're constantly analyzing and observing. It's a 24/7 operation, because the atmosphere is always changing."
Behind Pringle, a group of forecasters are hard at work studying the four computer monitors in front of them.
Each screen displays a dizzying amount of data.
It's Dec. 17, and in a few days, hundreds of thousands of people will be moving across this office's coverage zone during some of the busiest travel days of the year.
A lot is at stake here, as it always is.
A 24/7 operation
It is the job of the 25 men and women inside this small forecast office — one of 122 in the nation — to make sure nobody is blindsided by the weather.
Days, hours and minutes in advance, the meteorologists are monitoring and predicting the magnitude of storms that come into their coverage area, which spans 52,000 square miles.
Supercomputers are moving terra-bytes full of data in and out of the office all the time.
And the large radar that sits on the Grand Mesa several miles from the office is an important eye in the sky, as are the dozens of local weather observers who are able to give real-time accounts of what the weather is doing in their corners of the state.
"We're the frontline for getting the word out," Pringle says. "We are public servants at heart, and that's why we operate 24/7."
There's really no official start or stop to the workday here, as forecasters man the stations as vigorously at 3 a.m. as they do at 8 a.m.
At 10 a.m., the lead forecaster presides over a briefing called a map huddle.
On Dec. 17, the briefing focused on an impending snowstorm, and forecasters kept in mind that many people would be taking to the roads and the skies to start their Christmas vacations.
Days in advance, the forecasters agreed that the upcoming storm was likely to bring heavy snow to the northern mountains in Colorado, including Steamboat Springs.
There also was a sense of excitement, and a little concern, when a rarity also showed up in the forecast for the Grand Junction area — freezing rain.
The forecasters discussed what the appropriate watch or warning would be, and they took into account such things as what day of the week it was and how many travelers would be on the roads.
Then, one forecaster proceeded to work on a short range forecast, while another took a look at what was coming a week ahead of time.
Joe Ramey was on the long-term forecast desk on this day.
The human element
Ramey looks at ease as he stares at the four flatscreen computer monitors in front of him.
Two Linux-based computers sitting below him constantly ingest live weather data and atmospheric models.
As he develops the forecast, he still finds the time to tell a couple of jokes and share some laughs with colleagues.
But more often than not, the forecasters remain serious and hyper-focused on all of the data in front of them.
On the screen to Ramey's right, the live weather data for the forecast zone is displayed.
On the screen to his left are several projections of what could happen in the days to come.
The screens in the middle are where the present and the future meet and become a forecast, he said.
"You can get bogged down in the quagmire of information," he said. "One of our jobs is to sift through a mound of information and find the important pieces of information that can add quality to the forecast."
Thirty years ago, forecasters only could reliably predict the weather three days ahead of time.
Now, as computers get faster and technology is improved at a frantic pace, forecasters can predict the weather seven days in advance just as accurately.
But even as technology has advanced, forecasts are not automated.
They still require a human element.
"The one thing we can do here is add quality," Ramey said, explaining that forecasters know the intricacies of the terrain around them better than computers.
For example, he said computers still can't really account for the 1,000 foot thick inversion that exists in Grand Junction.
If it were all up to computers, the temperatures in the forecast would be greatly skewed.
"The forecast is most often a blend of the human interpretation of weather patterns and the pure model data," he said.
Predicting the weather around Steamboat and Northwest Colorado can be more challenging than in other parts of the country because of the terrain and all of the microclimates that exist.
Northern Routt County, for example, is in a blind spot on the radar because of its elevation.
But with years of experience and watching the weather come in and out, the forecasters in Grand Junction have amassed one of the best accuracy rates in the country for forecasting storms.
As Ramey continues to go over the December forecast at 3:30 p.m., Becky Klenk is preparing to fulfill one of the most important duties at this office.
Ready, set, launch
Klenk opens a door and walks into a freezing garage area.
"It's the coldest part of the office," she says as she turns a knob and begins to inflate a giant latex weather balloon full of helium.
At 4 a.m. and 4 p.m. every day, a technician releases one of these balloons, which tow a device called a radiosonde high up into the atmosphere.
Before she lets it go, Klenk writes where the radiosonde can be returned if it is found when it lands back on Earth.
She said more often than you'd think, they are found and returned by hunters.
Back in the office, meteorologists watch live as the device records the changing temperature and wind speed.
Releases from other forecast offices across the country are going on simultaneously, and all of the data is shared to better forecast the weather.
"It energizes you," Kleink said about the work. "I enjoy coming to work. I enjoy my job."
Most people know the National Weather Service only through that computerized voice that sometimes interrupts their radios to warn of severe weather.
But behind the forecasts are men and women who remain fascinated by the weather.
They like to hike and explore.
Some are ranchers, bikers, skiers and family men.
They also know their families and friends depend on the accuracy of the forecast.
At least two forecasters at the Weather Service in Grand Junction, including Pringle, were drawn to their jobs after witnessing powerful weather phenomenons such as tornadoes.
Their love of weather started as a childhood fascination.
"I like to know how much rain is coming just as much as everybody else," electronics systems analyst Chris Kornkven said from his office.
He is one of the few employees who didn't go to school specifically to study the weather, but years of working for the Weather Service have taught him plenty about meteorology.
As a rancher, he depends on the forecasts at his office for such things as knowing when to cut hay.
That gut feeling
At 6 p.m., the bustle and excitement at the office is winding down.
There are noticeably fewer employees milling about the room that resembles a small scale mission control center for NASA.
In a corner, senior forecaster Norvan Larson mans a workstation and sips a cup of coffee as he monitors his row of computer monitors.
Late at night, his job is to make sure the forecasts are playing out as predicted.
He said while it's nice to see technology make the job easier, he doesn't foresee a future when forecasts won't need humans anymore.
Besides, the weather's unpredictably is somewhat of a bonus.
And computers still don't have that "gut" feeling about the weather.
"It's amazing to think about all the people who depend on us," Pringle said in his office. "From transportation to industry to schools to law enforcement to hospitals. Pretty much everyone. We need to constantly be observing the weather. And if we stopped, we'd get a lot of phone calls.”
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