Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Future Direction of the National Weather Service

I often wonder if the public understands what in the world we (the National Weather Service) is saying when we issue a forecast.  In other words, there are probably a lot of terms we use that only we as forecasters understand.  For example, does the public know the difference between "patchy fog" and "areas of fog"?  Which is more significant?  And what's the difference between "rain likely" and "rain", or "isolated showers" and "scattered showers"?  National Weather Service folks of course know the answer and often agonize over these decisions, but does the public care?

I am really happy with the direction that the National Weather Service is headed, which an increased emphasis on understanding how the public makes decisions based on our products and services.  After all, you can make the most accurate forecast, but it means nothing if our customers make poor decisions based on the forecast, or doesn't see the forecast at all.  And to make things trickier, different people have different thresholds that they deem as important.  For example, the snowplow operator may want to know if it's going to snow 2" or more, but the avalanche forecaster may only care if it's going to snow 6" or more, or may even be more concerned about wind rather than snow.  The trick is allowing our customers to easily extract information from our forecasts which can help them make better decisions.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Freezing Rain to Snow

After some warm temperatures and freezing rain, it's finally snowing again!  Not a whole lot, though: about 4" with maybe a little more to come.  Looks like about the same amount or a little more in Anchorage.  Skiing today at Alyeska was kind of awkward, with about 4-5" new snow on top of an icy base.  It wasn't terrible, but wasn't great either.  I was definitely rusty and fell a few times.  The Chair 6 bowl (upper mountain) was open, but there were a lot of hazards including a lot of glide cracks, which are basically like crevasses that you really don't want to fall in.  Below is a webcam shot of Anchorage late this afternoon.

The ice storm earlier this week was a big deal.  In the Interior in places like Fairbanks, it was roughly a once a generation event.  Big ice storms are not common in Alaska.  School was out for several days in Anchorage and Fairbanks.  For Anchorage and for me in Girdwood, it was more like a once a year or once every two year event.  In most places, the ice accumulation was far heavier on the roads than on the trees and power lines.  This was because temperatures during the event rose to near or just above freezing, but the ground was slower to warm than the tree branches and remained below freezing.  Thus, we had, especially on side streets, freezing rain with temperatures above freezing.  I noticed when browsing the FAA webcams that Ruby did have significant ice accumulation on the trees.  Check out the Ruby webcam below with the trees leaning over.  I noticed when looping the cam that some of the trees fell.  Ruby is in the Interior along the Yukon River west of Fairbanks, in "Bush Alaska".  The Iditarod goes through there every other year (not this year).  Perhaps that's fortunate, given that there may be a lot of trees down on the trail.
Ruby, AK.  Notice how much the trees are leaning over.

Ballaine Rd in Fairbanks (not my photo).  Notice all the cars (and a school bus) off the road.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A 24/7 Society

It has always bugged me that the world operates on a roughly 9am-5pm schedule, but it has been bugging me more lately since I have transitioned from shift work to an all day schedule.  Sure, it's nice having a normal sleep pattern.  However, it was nice being able to shop in off-hours when there's nobody else around.  One major inconvenience is the hours of the post office here in Girdwood.  Because I commute and I'm not home from work until about 530pm on weekdays, the post office is already closed.  Therefore, the only time of the week I can pick up/send packages is from 1000am-noon on Saturday, which isn't terribly convenient either since I like sleeping in on Saturday.

Since weather doesn't take a break at night, meteorologists with the National Weather Service work 24/7, of which I am very proud.  I often wonder if the world would function better if it ran on a 24 hour clock.  Some benefits include the lack of rush hour traffic, being able to shop any old time, and being able to play a round of golf on Sunday without ridiculous crowds.  A drawback would be not being able to coordinate with all your coworkers (like we experience at the National Weather Service).  Strange sleep patterns wouldn't be a problem with a 24/7 society as long as those who work nights work nights consistently, and those who work days work days consistently.

The change to a 24/7 society would have to occur in pretty much all aspects of society for it to be truly effective.  However, I think we are headed in this direction.  For example, even for those who work 9-5, it is common to check and respond to email through the evening, or even during a bathroom break in the middle of the night.  Also, more people are telecommuting in an increasingly global society.  There are probably a lot more benefits and drawbacks to a 24/7 society than I have mentioned here.  I doubt it will ever happen completely, but I can dream.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Temperatures are Stupid

Is it just me, or does it seem like a sunny 25F day with snow on the ground and light winds can seem warmer than a cloudy, windy 55F day?  I've always believed that the temperature itself tells very little about what it actually feels like outside.  Let's start out with summer.  Growing up in Alabama, when the temperature got to 90F, there was a huge difference between a 72F dewpoint and a 68F dewpoint.  Playing golf all summer, on the 90/68 days I'd hardly sweat, but on the 90/72 I'd be dripping.  Cloudy, breezy days in the summer always felt way better too, all other things being equal.

However, once the temperature gets below about 60F, high humidities have a different role: they make it feel colder.  This gets extremely noticeable for temperatures near or just below freezing.  This may sound crazy, but I perceive winters up here in Alaska to only be a touch cooler than where I grew up in Alabama.  This is because in Alabama it was often quite humid when it was cold.  Plus, there's just something about snow on the ground (in Alaska, not Alabama) that makes you feel warmer than if there isn't snow.  Perhaps part of my perception of Alabama as cold is due to the fact that for some odd reason I loved wearing shorts in the winter, but I digress.

Wind is obviously another factor in how it really feels.  Obviously, there's a little thing called wind chill.  However, I've always thought that it's a bit overrated.  Let me explain way. 
  1. If you are properly dressed when it's really cold out, you don't have any exposed skin, thus the wind matters little.
  2. You can usually turn away from the wind, protecting yourself at least somewhat.   
  3. 33F is still 33F no matter the wind.  You can't get frostbite at 33F even though the supposed wind chill may be well below freezing.  Well, perhaps you could get a little frostbite if the air is really dry and your skin is wet with evaporative cooling going on, but generally speaking you need temps below freezing to get frostbite.  Of course, hypothermia can occur at much warmer temperatures.
  4. The wind you experience when outside is rarely the wind observed at an official measurement station, at least not for sustained periods.  Wind is measured is a big open field usually at an airport at 33 ft above the ground.  Not exactly representative for what you're experiencing.  An important exception is if you are on a ridgetop.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My Ideal Climate

Being a weather nerd, I often ponder what the ideal climate would be for me.  Girdwood has its perks, but rain in the winter is no fun.  Case in point, after getting over two feet of snow in recent days, now it's raining.  So here are my criteria for my dream climate:
  • Cool, long winters, but not too cold.  Girdwood fits this pretty well, if only it was maybe 5F cooler in the winter.
  • Very snowy winters.  1,000" sounds good.  Girdwood gets about 250", but the mountains around Girdwood get near 1,000" at about the 3,500-5,000' elevation.
  • Changable weather, with pretty good fronts as a high frequency.  Although the weather in Girdwood is somewhat changeable, it's not nearly as changeable as what I experienced when I lived in Billings along the Front Range of the Rockies.  A bit too much of a marine influence here.
  • Mild summers, with highs in the 70s and lows in the 40s.  A fair amount of sun in the summer, but not so much that the vegetation dries up with lots of wildfires.  Prefer synoptic systems for rainfall, not thunderstorms, as lightning scares me.  If there has to be thunderstorms, have them be only on easily predictable days and not every day.  Girdwood is a bit too cool in the summer, and we could use some more sun.
  • Gorgeous fall colors with some trees.  There aren't quite the beautiful fall colors in Girdwood.  Anchorage has a bit more color, but is not as good as it could be because of the evil birch leaf miners.
  • Orographic weather.  There have to be at least decent sized mountains, at least 2,000-3,000' in my ideal climate.
  • And getting even more specific, I want a gentle north-facing slope in a small valley in the higher elevations of an area.  North-facing to keep the snow, a small valley to get some radiational cooling, and higher elevations to have more snow than surrounding areas.
So, does this ideal climate exist anywhere in the world?  Where is it the closest?  In Alaska, I think the Western Susitna Valley up against the Alaska Range would be my pick.  If only the NWS would put a new forecast office at Hayes River. 
What is your ideal climate?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

NWS Budget Thoughts

First off, WARNING: dry work-related article!  And a disclaimer: the thoughts are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the NWS as a whole, though I do agree with the basic ideas of the higher-ups in the NWS.

I've been pondering: how can we save money in the NWS if we are forced to?  Not that I want a budget cut or anything and I'd fight hard with what little/no power that I have to at least keep our present level of funding.  But if we get a budget cut, how can we save money?  Here are some thoughts (feel free to add more).
  1. Less travel and more virtual conferences.  Travel is extremely expensive these days, and although you can't quite get the same networking experience at a virtual conference, it's a huge money saver.  The technology is certainly out there to pull it off.  I've never played around with "Second Life", but I hear that you can have a conference using it.  How cool would that be?  And there are many other options.  I love to travel, but I think in 5-10 years travel will be somewhat obsolete.
  2. Related to virtual conferences, improve communication between NWS employees to reduce redundancy.  There are many ways to do this, which I won't go into here.
  3. Utilize cloud-based technologies.  In the past, the NWS has generally taken the idea that if it's not ours, it's no good.  There are a lot of great innovations going on these days in computing.  Let's face the fact that in a lot of areas, we just can't quite keep up.  We should actively seek things that others are doing well.
  4. As far as consolidating forecast offices, not a good idea.  Local knowledge is key to forecasting, and this makes it easier to interact with our core partners and the general public.
  5. Eliminate old, obsolete products or technologies.  We have a lot of great services that we would like to add over the next few years, but it's hard to keeping adding without eliminating some things.  Better to eliminate products or technologies than people, though. 
  6. Automate the balloon releases.  Upper air is automated other places in the world, and although there would be some up-front cost, in the long run it would save money.
  7. Decrease everyone's salary!  (Just kidding.)  That would be about the worst thing you could do, as it would kill morale and lead to the end of the NWS.  Cutting positions would have a similar effect.  There are plenty of things we could do before it comes to that.
  8. Educate and engage with the public so that they know better what we do.  The public pays our salary, and can be a great advocate for the NWS in hard times.
Any other thoughts out there?

Monday, November 8, 2010

It Snowed

So it snowed.  Bigtime.  We got 24.4" of snow in about 24 hours, with 1.47" of water.  I'd estimate it has a recurrence frequency of about a year.  Winter was a bit late to start.  As usual, when it's slow to start, when things crank up they crank up in a big way.  Although temps were 29-31F during the event, it was fairly low density.  Lots of cars stuck in Girdwood, and as usual lots of rollovers in Anchorage.  I hope everyone has their studs on by now.  Snow depth at the top of Alyeska is 75-80" now, and ski patrol is out getting things ready for opening on the 24th.  For those of you who don't know, I live in Girdwood which is where Alyeska ski resort is located.

I tried out some new skis tonight around the neighborhood and was pretty happy with them.  They are kind of a hybrid between alpine (downhill) skis and cross country skis.  Basically, they're waxless heavy-duty cross country skis with a metal edge.  I plan to use them for meadering off-trail through the gentle woods or for the steeper cross country ski trails, but not for downhill skiing at the resort.  I went up a hill in the neighborhood with ease, and then back down, turning or snowplowing.  You can see the skis up against the house in the pic below.

I don't think the Davis Weather Station is measuring water anymore. :)

I don't know if Nimbo can get in the doghouse anymore.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Is the Loss of Privacy Good or Bad?

Times are a-changin.  It seems these days people can know you intimately without having ever met you.  Google someone and you know just about everything, not only their address, phone number, and age, but also what their house looks like (Google Street View), or even where you are at any time, thanks to facebook, twitter, foursquare, and such.  Is the loss of privacy a good or bad thing?

First, the negatives of the loss of privacy.  Obviously, there's the concern of identity theft, or having your house robbed if you check into McDonald's using social media.  Also, anything you say on the internet, even within facebook, can be read by anyone.  This includes your boss or prospective employer.

However, I'd argue that the general loss of privacy is a good thing.  If everyone knows all about you and what you're doing, wouldn't you be less likely to do bad things?  I've got nothing to hide, and as long as you have nothing to hide and don't write things on the internet in a druken stupor, you're fine.  Plus, with less privacy comes the ease of networking, working with others to develop solutions to problems that by ourselves we cannot solve.

I'll be interested to see how this all turns out.  If you are a very private person, just please ask yourself why.  Is there something really bad you are trying to hide?

Air Travel Rants!

Okay, so having just been on a plane trip to DC and to Huntsville, I figured I'd share some of my thoughts on air travel and airplane ettiquette.  Let me know what you all think.

First off, what's up with everyone reclining seats?  Leg room is limited enough as it is and the tight space is vertigo-enducing for me.  Does leaning the seat back just a touch really make things more comfortable for people?  I have a bad back, and if I leaned my seat back, that would be a less comfortable position for me.  And is it worth making the person behind you miserable?  To which you might be wondering why I don't just tell the person in front of me not to recline.  Well, I'm a wimp and don't want to start a fight.  Plus, do you think the person in front of me would really put the seat back upright?  I might have some more respect if the person in front of me asked before reclining, but that has never happened to me.

Another thing.  Does the airline industry not realize the problems they've caused by introducing baggage fees?  Now everyone (not me, though) takes their ridiculously large luggage onto the plane and makes it take much longer to load and unload the plane, as well as creates a safety hazard for tumbling heavy luggage.  Airlines are just another example of businesses putting greed before customer service.  What I think businesses don't realize is that they'll make more money with good customer service, especially in these days with the consumer having more power.  Just look at the United guitar guy.

Another rant.  Why do so few people look out the window on a plane?  I am always in awe of the beauty that I see from the air and love flying for this reason.  It just seems that so many people don't appreciate the beauty that exists all around us.  There could be a spectacular glaciated mountain out the window, and people will just shut the shade.  I don't know what it is.  Maybe part of it is all the technology these days having desensitized people to the beauty of nature.  Or maybe most people are just robots.

Obama Mentions National Weather Service

Quote from President Obama:
"And so, you then have to start making some tough decisions about how do we pay for those things that we think are important? And you know, we're not gonna be able to balance the budget just by slashing the National Parks budget, even if you didn't think that was a proper function of government. We're not gonna be able to balance the budget by, you know, eliminating the National Weather Service."

I'm impressed the president actually knows about the National Weather Service, and is aware that our budget really is tiny in the overall scheme of things.  The NWS really is one of the best values for the taxpayer that exists.  I could go on and on explaing why it's a great value, but trust me, it is.  One good forecast for a high impact weather event can make up for a whole year's NWS budget. 

The problem is that we (the NWS) have never really been that good as marketing ourselves.  I tell the general public that I'm a meteorologist, and 90% of the time they ask what station I work for and have no idea what the National Weather Service does.  I think part of it is due to the fact that we (meteorologists) are generally introverted and keep to ourselves.  We've got to get out more and tell the community what we do.  One great way to do this is through social media.  We've got to stop hiding and start standing up for ourselves! 

My First Post

Okay, so I've finally decided to come into the blogosphere.  I'm not quite sure what will come of this blog, but basically it'll be my ramblings, many related to my professional life, but also some miscellaneous stuff.  The line between my job and my personal life is often pretty blurred anyway, since my work does happen to be what I'm passionate about.  I am making another new blog covering our new baby girl who is coming in March.  Both Jenevra and I will be writing posts for that blog.