New Technology Proves Vital To Alaska’s National Weather Service Forecasters

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Today we’re doing the weather. Dave Snider is a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. He does a daily statewide forecast for public television stations.

The final product you see is full of graphics, but inside the massive TV studio it’s just Snider and a single green screen.

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“It is a little wonky at first when you’re looking at yourself moving one way and you’re going the other way,” Snider said. “But most of these kids now, if you could play Minecraft, they could do the green screen just fine.”

Snider has been a weatherman for 18 years, three of which he’s spent in Alaska. He says forecasting up here is unique; not only is the weather harder to predict, it’s more important to get it right.

“Rain in the Midwest is different for impacts than it is for Juneau,” he said. “If it’s raining and windy in Juneau you might not be able to fly in. And that’s it for the day.”

Luckily, Snider says the technology that goes into meteorology has improved dramatically, a lot of it just in the past 10 years. That creates a more accurate forecast, and a longer range.

“You know, one to five days out you can be pretty good,” Snider said. “Six to seven days, modestly good. After that you’re starting to look at trends a little more.”

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And that is an incredible feat when you consider the history of weather forecast.

A quick weather 101; Aristotle is often credited for being the first weather man. He wrote a book titled Meterologica in 340 B.C. The book was used as an everyday weather encyclopedia until Galileo created the first version of a thermometer in the late 16th century. It turned out that almost all of Aristotle’s theories were wrong.

So for nearly 2,000 years people were relying on a book that was, for lack of better words; just wingin’ it. Certainly we had plenty of advancements since Galileo’s time as well, but what changed in the past decade to make weather forecast so accurate?

For that answer we head back to the home base of the National Weather Service. Mike Ottenweller is a tech guy at the NWS, and he spends a lot of time looking at satellite images. He says not only are there more satellites transmitting at higher resolutions, but the weather models that people like Ottenweller create to predict the weather are very polished.

“And these models over time have been refined again and again with different physics and algorithms so that ultimately they’re producing the best results,” Ottenweller said. “We’re coming into an age now where we are seeing hurricane models that are vastly outperforming what they used to do 10 years ago. So that’s a good example of where technology has taken us.”

And how could we credit any kind of 21st century advancement without mentioning social media? Ottenweller says the National Weather Service often uses updates through Facebook or Twitter from their volunteers around the state.

“And that allows us to verify whether or not there is snow falling in a certain location or high winds are occurring,” Ottenweller said. “And if they’re not occurring we can change the forecast to reflect exactly what is happening so that’s really led to significant improvements in forecast and a lot more frequent updates when there needs to be an update.”

I can’t figure out if it’s hilarious or tragic that Aristotle was no match for Facebook, but Dave Snider assures me that meteorology will likely never be an exact science. And maybe it’s fitting that he says it in an almost philosophical way.

“One flap of the butterfly wings on Saturday could mean that by Monday and Tuesday the storm is moving left instead of right,” Snider said.