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Private Business, Civilian Spotters Enhance Weather Forecasting

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The United States Department of Labor’s (DOL) Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment of atmospheric scientists, including meteorologists, will grow 12% from 2016 to 2026, faster than the average for all other occupations.

In Maryland alone, that growth is expected to reach 21% from 2014 through 2024, with the DOL noting that the best job prospects for atmospheric scientists lie in private industry.
Moreover, Maryland ranks fairly high on the list of states with the best opportunities in this field: fourth among states with the highest employment level in this occupation, fifth among states with the highest concentration of meteorological jobs and first in hourly wages.

While that paints a sunny picture, there are some unpredictable pressures that are exerting an influence, particularly at the federal level, where forecasting plays a critical role in the nation’s ability to predict and plan for weather-related natural disasters.

For starters, President Donald Trump not only proposed cutting 355 National Weather Service (NWS) jobs in his latest budget, eliminating 20% of all the forecasters at the nation’s 122 forecast offices, but also proposed closing forecast offices at night.
The demand for real-time weather intelligence and near-term forecasting is growing; there’s no question that weather patterns are changing and that the intensity of storm events is increasing, as evidenced by last year’s precedent-setting hurricanes.
Even without the proposed cuts, the NWS is finding it difficult to perform its critical mission.

“Based on service assessments conducted following 10 major storms that have occurred since 2008, it’s evident that understaffing has been responsible for a poorer quality of forecasting and less timely services,” said Richard Hirn, counsel for the NWS Employees Organization.

High Tech Help

Private enterprise is moving into the fray to help forecasters do more with fewer personnel.

StormCenter Communications, a bwtech@UMBC Incubator & Accelerator company specializing in weather and climate communications technologies, is developing solutions that enable weather and climate visualization and collaboration, using nothing more than a browser and an Internet connection.

“We’ve developed a technology that allows information to be shared, in real time, across any computer system,” CEO Dave Jones said. “We’re looking at offering it to the National Weather Service. It’s something that can accomplish a lot of their mission for a lot less money. They’re evaluating it now to get a better idea of its utility and value.”

A former broadcast meteorologist for WRC-TV NBC4 in Washington, D.C., Jones knows what the NWS is up against.

“They’ve been operating at razor-thin levels for years, and haven’t been able to hire all the meteorologists they really need,” he said. “Something else that concerns me is that upwards of 45% of that workforce is going to be eligible for retirement in the very near future.”

Hirn, however, said he’s not quite as concerned by that figure as others.

“It’s not unusual to have a situation like that in federal government,” Hirn said. “In fact, the whole federal workforce is aging, but there are always new employees coming along to replace them.”

Low Tech Help

Another tool available to stretch the capabilities of the NWS is one that’s been around since the 1960s: The SKYWARN program consists of trained weather spotters who provide reports of severe and hazardous weather to help meteorologists make life-saving warning decisions.

Spotters are concerned citizens, amateur radio operators, truck drivers, mariners, airplane pilots, emergency management personnel and public safety officials who volunteer their time and energy to report on hazardous weather impacting their community.
Although NWS uses Doppler radar, satellite and surface weather stations, that technology cannot detect every instance of hazardous weather.

“We use spotters to fill in the gaps to confirm weather phenomena and report damage or dangerous conditions,” Hirn said.
Laurel City Administrator Marty Flemion has served as a SKYWARN spotter for years, and is certified in both flood and snow reporting.
“Spotters become a credible source of information,” Flemion said, helping local officials — and sometimes even state and federal officials — determine the correct response and the scope of resources that need to be deployed.

“A lot of people will call city officials to report flooding conditions, but those conditions may not be related to a weather event,” he observed. “It might be a failure in the storm drain system.”
Spotters help by learning about different types of weather events, how to collect data, and how to call into the NWS data center and report useful information.

“My observations of wind damage on Main Street led to the confirmation of an F2 tornado in 2001,” Flemion said.

Unique Situation

The combination of new technology and people who serve as eyes and ears on the ground help the NWS be more efficient and effective, Hirn said.

That’s true everywhere the NWS is active, but it’s of particular value to the state of Maryland.

“Maryland is one of the few states that does not have its own forecasting service facilities,” Hirn said. “This service is actually covered by the NWS forecast office in Sterling, Va.”

Last month, Laurel Mayor Craig Moe and the city’s Emergency/Floodplain Manager Stephen Allen issued a release asking city residents to consider enrolling in the SKYWARN program.
According to the release, the NWS is offering free basic weather spotter classes in Maryland, in Leonardtown (St. Mary’s County) and in College Park, on April 11 and April 21, respectively, and a flood class is offered on May 24 at the University of Maryland’s Maryland Fire & Rescue Institute, also in College Park. The courses last about two hours, and more information is available at www.nws.gov/wx/skywarn.