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AK: Eyes On The Sky

By | July 19, 2013

Bill Luedke sends weather data to Juneau from a desk in his Port Alexander home. Next to him are two barometers and, on the shelfs above, hundreds of sheets of handwritten weather data from the last few years. (KCAW photo by Ed Ronco)

Bill Luedke sends weather data to Juneau from a desk in his Port Alexander home. Next to him are two barometers and, on the shelfs above, hundreds of sheets of handwritten weather data from the last few years. (KCAW photo by Ed Ronco)

For most Americans, local weather information comes from a variety of high-tech instruments. There’s Doppler radar, digital thermometers and barometers, satellite images, weather buoys and more. But in Port Alexander, a small Southeast community, the daily weather report depends on two human beings.

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This is part of the weather observation station in Bill and Kim Luedke's side yard in Port Alexander. (KCAW photo by Ed Ronco)

This is part of the weather observation station in Bill and Kim Luedke’s side yard in Port Alexander. (KCAW photo by Ed Ronco)

The Luedke family home, on the waterfront in Port Alexander, is just off the boardwalk, through a thicket of salmonberry bushes.

“Watch your step,” Kim Luedke says. “It’s a little steep coming through here.”

A big, white wooden box sits on a stand just to the left of their back porch.

“So, this weather station has been here for years,” she explains.

A metal plate near the top of the box says “Property of U.S. Weather Bureau. Interference Prohibited.” To give you an idea of how old the box is, the government last used the name “U.S. Weather Bureau” in 1970. Since then, it’s been called the National Weather Service.

Kim Luedke opens the box and switches on a small, whirring motor, which helps Kim and Bill measure the dew point. The Luedkes are paid weather observers, and most of the weather data that comes out of Port Alexander depends on them.

“Looks like we have some fog to the south, vicinity showers to the west,” Bill said.

Kim Luedke shows the rain gauge in her yard. In the 24 hours before this photo was taken, Port Alexander recorded 0.02 inches of rainfall. Luedke and her husband Bill are paid weather observers in the small Baranof Island community. Their data is used by the National Weather Service and the FAA. (KCAW photo by Ed Ronco)

Kim Luedke shows the rain gauge in her yard. In the 24 hours before this photo was taken, Port Alexander recorded 0.02 inches of rainfall. Luedke and her husband Bill are paid weather observers in the small Baranof Island community. Their data is used by the National Weather Service and the FAA. (KCAW photo by Ed Ronco)

After a little while, they turn off the motor, and we go inside, where Bill Luedke sits at a dimly lit desk next to a pair of barometers. He’s punching in a series of letters that mean something to, well, somebody …

“All of this is in their own secret code so the Taliban can’t figure it out,” Bill said.

Then he reaches for his mouse, clicks, waits patiently for the rural Internet to do its thing.

“And it’s off. It’s off into cyberspace for everyone to look at,” he said.

Kim and Bill Luedke’s position is one of 13 in the entire nation. Eleven of the jobs are here in Alaska. Two others are in the mountainous west. They’re paid by NOAA, which is the umbrella organization over the National Weather Service.

“Automated equipment in these remote locations is pretty difficult to install,” Angel Corona, who is in charge of data acquisition for the National Weather Service’s Alaska Region headquarters in Anchorage, said.

He says there are distinct advantages to having human observers.

“Automation is just that. It can only sense what the sensors can sense. A person who has eyes can see things that are occurring. A person can see a thunderstorm off in the distance where an automated piece of equipment cannot,” Corona said.

Among the biggest beneficiaries of those human observations are pilots.

Bill Luedke sends weather data to Juneau from a desk in his Port Alexander home. Next to him are two barometers and, on the shelfs above, hundreds of sheets of handwritten weather data from the last few years. (KCAW photo by Ed Ronco)

Bill Luedke sends weather data to Juneau from a desk in his Port Alexander home. Next to him are two barometers and, on the shelfs above, hundreds of sheets of handwritten weather data from the last few years. (KCAW photo by Ed Ronco)

“It’s its own little microclimate down there, for sure,” Mark Hackett, a pilot and director of operations for Harris Air, in Sitka, said.

The FAA has live cameras in Port Alexander, but he says the human observers are critical for things like wind speed and behavior – stuff no camera can really convey.

“It’s always great talking to those guys down there, for sure. It’s been fun watching them raise their family as their kids come and go,” Hackett said. “They’re not only observers, they’re our passengers too.”

“We’ve got to take care of them.”

The Luedkes observe the weather every two hours, every single day.

“Seven observations a day during the summer, and five observations a day during the winter.” (ER: Does it ever get old?) “Yes. (chuckles) Yep. Especially on days when you’re doing other chores around the property or projects you’re working on,” Bill said.

Neither Luedke is a professional meteorologist, but then, neither Luedke is preparing a forecast. They’re simply observing conditions. Even so, they both had to pass a test in order to get the job. And the only reason they did that is because they inherited the weather station when they bought their home.

Bill Luedke says it’s important to be clear about what the job is, and what it isn’t.

Bill and Kim Luedke have been paid weather observers for more than 11 years. The Port Alexander couple shares the job, taking turns making observations every two hours. Their data helps forecasters and pilots in Southeast Alaska. (KCAW photo by Ed Ronco)

Bill and Kim Luedke have been paid weather observers for more than 11 years. The Port Alexander couple shares the job, taking turns making observations every two hours. Their data helps forecasters and pilots in Southeast Alaska. (KCAW photo by Ed Ronco)

“It is confusing sometimes, because we get it from fishermen all the time that ‘Your observations are very incorrect. I was out in the middle of Chatham Strait and it was not like you were describing.’ Our observation is for right here at the landing strip inside the harbor at Port Alexander,” Bill said.

The landing strip is water, of course, and right in front of where we’re sitting on the porch. No planes land during our conversation, but as we’re finishing the interview, the wind picks up, which leads to the most important question of all.

“ER: What’s happening right now? KIM: “A little gust of wind there!” BILL: “It’s not a squall, it’s not strong enough to be a squall, but it is a mild gust.”

For AK, this is Ed Ronco in Port Alexander, where it’s 60 degrees Fahrenheit, with 71 percent relative humidity, patchy fog, occasional showers, and well, lots of other stuff, too.

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