October 1, 2015 Sailing, Weather, Williamsburg, York River

Sailing Before the Storm

As skies darkened along the East Coast, I happened to take a NOAA official sailing with her family near Williamsburg before the gathering storm. She explained why forecasters couldn’t pin down exactly where Hurricane Joaquin would make landfall. DeLyne and David Kirkham live in Elko in the mountains of northwest Nevada. She collects data for the weather service at one of 122 Weather Forecast Offices nationwide. The closest one to Williamsburg is at Wakefield, across the James River.

“I release the weather balloon at 3 pm or 3 am, depending on what shift I’m working. It’s simultaneously released all over the world at more than 100 points. The balloon is about the size of this cockpit and it has a radio that gathers data as it rises. Eventually the balloon bursts and the radio descends to Earth attached to a miniature parachute. By then we’ve already recorded the data. We compare that to existing data for various models and combine that with satellite data to come up with a forecast. They’re very accurate out to three days and less accurate out to four to eight days, but the models are getting better. Right now the European model is doing quite well. That’s the one that got Hurricane Sandy right on the nose.” The European model is the one that projects Joaquin to veer out to the North Atlantic, which almost no one believes is going to happen.

David described the radio as the size of “a large Chinese take-out order.” DeLyne said each one has a self-addressed mailer to send them back to NOAA. “Only about 20 percent come back since presumably many of them get lost in the terrain. My territory is the largest in the contiguous United States. Some of the radios have landed quite close to the office, others up to 150 miles away.”

At the moment, ominous clouds to the south were looming. “Dark clouds suggest instability in the atmosphere as wind and lightning develop.” Forecasters were saying that such instability was making it difficult to pinpoint Joaquin’s path. “Believe me, they’ve got the best forecasters working on this at the National Hurricane Center. Some meteorologists gravitate to a specialty like hurricanes or tornadoes. The best ones are where they need to be, such as Tornado Alley. We used to train others by sending them there, but we’re down 600 people from the 4,500 we’re supposed to have. We’re stretched thin, like everyone else.”

Among other things, NOAA produces navigation charts used by mariners all over America. NOAA is also responsible for marine radio, where the weather forecasts are in a computer loop. The voice of the woman always says “cloudy” as “clouu-deee” for some strange reason. DeLyne was aware of that and found it equally amusing.

The weather we get on TV and the Internet is of course based on NOAA data. The agency sells the data to Accuweather and the Weather Channel, who tweak it and brand it. I’m convinced the Weather Channel makes a pessimistic forecast to scare people, discourage them from going outside, and stay home watching their forecast and the advertising spots. “Some of it is simply CYA,” DeLyne said. “If they’re wrong, they want to err on the side of caution.” It began to rain, so we headed into port on the side of caution.

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