Digital Voice Replaces Forecasters’ at Nome’s Weather Service

Robert Murders with the National Weather Service reads the weather Monday, June 9. (Photo by Rolland Trowbridge, KNOM - Nome)
Robert Murders with the National Weather Service reads the weather Monday, June 9. (Photo by Rolland Trowbridge, KNOM – Nome)

The National Weather Service in Nome is switching to an automated digital voice for its weather forecasts, one of the final forecasting stations in the country to cease having local forecasters read and record the weather.

From home radios to VHFs, in summer fish camps and during long winter nights at home, local forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service office in Nome were heard across western Alaska. Their marine forecasts were also regularly heard on Nome radio stations.

But this week, the voices of those forecasters will be replaced by “Tom,” one of several voices available for the automated weather system that, after being installed in nearly every other weather outpost in the nation, is coming to Nome.

“On our NOAA Weather Radio, we have routinely, every day, for all those years, read the local forecast and the regional forecast and [the] marine forecast. And [now] we’re going to be switching over to a digitized forecast,” said Jerry Steiger, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service in Nome.

The voice of “Tom,” as well as a female voice named “Donna” and a Spanish language voice named “Javier,” were developed for NOAA using the Speechify text-to-speech system. The National Weather Service began implementing the text-to-speech voices nationwide back in 2002. Samples of “Tom’s” voice and other synthetic voices available with NOAA’s new automated system can be found on NOAA’s website.

Steiger said Nome and Kodiak are the only two weather stations left in Alaska that still have weather service employees read the weather every day; both stations will be switching over in the coming days. A weather service technician was in Nome Tuesday to make the final preparations for “Tom” to take over the forecast in Nome.

Steiger said it’s a small change, but one he didn’t necessarily want, and one he had even avoided to keep people reading the forecast.

“I like it, and I think everyone who’s been here has liked doing the broadcast and giving a voice to the National Weather Service,” he said.

“It’s been my reluctance to let it happen here [that has kept the automated voice from being installed previously]. It was always curious to walk into a store or somewhere, or listen on the radio, and you’d hear your voice, occasionally,” he said. “Obviously, our voices will not be on the radio any more.”

Steiger said the new system has been programmed to accurately pronounce the unique names and places in western Alaska, and has seen field testing elsewhere in the country for more than a decade to make sure it holds up during emergencies. Emergency weather bulletins and other alerts will likewise be automated and delivered by “Tom.”

“The system that they have in place, to be able to do these warnings, can be done very quickly via just automation,” Steiger said. “The technology is there and it’s very reliable technology.”

The National Weather Service has been taking records in Nome since 1907, and Steiger said the Nome station has been broadcasting since the 1960s. He emphasized that, while the people collecting the weather data may no longer be heard on the radio after this week, they will still staffing the weather desk, collecting weather data, launching weather balloons, and more to make sure “Tom” has the right information to broadcast to the rest of the world.