Charged to save lives and property
National Weather Service’s West Plains station on Rambo Road use a variety of methods to forecast the weather
National Weather Service warning coordination meteorologist Andy Brown shows an instrument package that is attached to a weather balloon to a visiting Boy Scout troop.
There’s a saying: “If you don’t like the weather, wait 10 minutes. It will change.”
How it changes and what it changes into is the main reason why warning coordination meteorologist Andy Brown and the rest of the 26-person staff man the National Weather Service station on Rambo Road northwest of Airway Heights 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“It may not seem like it but we have 4-5 people a shift, rotating shifts,” Brown said.
Their job is to forecast the weather to “save lives and property,” which is the NWS’s mission as part of the Department of Commerce. The service has over 5,000 employees nationally, and 122 stations such as the one on the West Plains, including in Seattle and Missoula, Mont.
Building the stations began in the 1980s as part of the weather service’s modernization program, with the West Plains facility constructed in 1996. Brown is new to the facility, having served eight months at a station in the remote Alaskan village of McGrath before transferring to one in Anchorage. The Texas A&M graduate spent seven years in Anchorage before transferring to Spokane.
Brown and the rest of the Rambo Road personnel perform a number of duties. The facility is made up of a mixture of lead, journeyman and intern forecasters. The latter perform work such as handling pubic relations, visitor assistance and social media inquiries.
The lead and journeyman forecasters have a lot of tools at their disposal with which to produce their forecasts, and if necessary issue weather watches and warnings. Ground level instruments at the station, and other locations around Eastern Washington, measure temperature, wind speed and direction as well as humidity and precipitation amounts.
Twice a day, at 4 a.m. and 4 p.m., at 92 sites across the country including Rambo Road, intern and sometimes journeyman forecasters release a radiosonde instrument package attached to one end of a 100-foot long line that is lifted into the atmosphere by a 4-5-foot diameter balloon. The balloon rises to about 32,000 feet, Brown said, radioing back temperature, wind and humidity information as it goes.
Eventually the balloon will expand to about 32 feet in diameter and pop, gently returning the instrument package, which weighs around 2 pounds, to earth via a small parachute. Brown said the package includes mailing instructions so that if found can be returned to the facility that launched it.
“We get about 10 percent of the packages back,” he added.
During a May 17 tour of the facility one member of Spokane Valley Boy Scout Troop 431 asked Brown if there had ever been an airplane accident involving the balloons. Brown said control tower personnel and pilots know about the daily releases, and that he hadn’t heard of any accidents.
Forecasters also have several satellites that provide weather information, and a sophisticated radar system known technically as WSR-88D and colloquially as NEXRAD or Doppler. Brown said there are 159 Doppler stations around the country, and that it’s unique for a station such as Rambo Road to even have radar itself. The station Brown was at in Anchorage did not have radar.
Doppler is similar to traditional radar that tracks planes except that it operates at higher frequencies, shorter wavelengths, that enable it to see things like moisture bands. Brown said the radar rises 1 degree in elevation for every 360-degree spin, spinning twice a minute and taking eight minutes to do a complete scan up to 10,000 feet, the limit of its coverage.
All of this information gets input into computers in Washington, D.C. that produce simulation models used at Rambo Road to provide forecasts for a region running west from Idaho’s Panhandle to the crest of the Cascade Mountains and south from Canada to Walla Walla.
Lead forecaster John Fox explained that information from satellites – including visible light satellites – radar and ground data are superimposed over an area- terrain map. Besides rain, Doppler can also see hail as well as wind speeds, with green depicting wind approaching the radar echo and red blowing away.
Dual-pole radar tells forecasters what type of precipitation is in a cloud mass, with the entire data combined called a “graphical forecast.”
“The uncertainty in forecasting has to do with stability of the air mass,” Fox told the Boy Scouts. “The more stable, the more certainty.”
While all the sophisticated equipment is impressive, personnel at Rambo Road and other stations also do work in a more simple service – spotter training. Brown said they engage in training volunteers – around 900 in Eastern Washington and over 11,000 nationally – to watch the weather, teaching them what to look for, what and how to report, enabling many to be a part of something larger and important.
“We’re the behind the scenes for weather on TV, radio, newspapers and the Internet,” Brown said.
John McCallum can be reached at email@example.com.