Meteorologist Luigi Meccariello scanned a series of colorful maps and graphs across five computer monitors from his workstation at the National Weather Service nerve center in Albany on Wednesday afternoon.
He and a troop of other meteorologists joyfully tracked a northbound hurricane in the Caribbean, watching long-range digital models to predict if, when and where it will make landfall.
“See, the European model says it’ll hit New Jersey,” Meccariello said, pointing to a bright swirl on his left-hand monitor, “but the [Global Forecast System] says it’s going to veer out to sea.”
He theorizes the storm will hit the East Coast, perhaps somewhere around Maine in five or six days, causing more high winds than rain.
“But that will all change by tomorrow,” he said. “Long-range predictions change rapidly.”
And that is the problem. Forecasts are precise only within a few days, which means that the weather service has a very short time to warn the population of any impending weather disasters.
Wednesday afternoon, the NWS invited local media to their third-floor University at Albany office for a crash course on the forecasting industry and how best to pass on weather warnings.
It was part of the Weather-Ready Nation initiative taken on by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to “build communication between organizations to better protect life and property,” according to Lead Forecaster Brian Montgomery.
Since Tropical Storm Irene swept the Capitol Region 14 months ago, NWS Albany has been conscious of the gaps in their warning systems. Not everyone owns a NOAA weather
radio, and when the power goes out, so does the TV.
The Weather-Ready Nation initiative aims to close those gaps in this region and across the country, “and media partnerships are a large part of that,” Montgomery said.
A few meteorologists took local journalists through their basic weather toolbox, from the network of government and amateur river, rain, snow and wind gauges scattered across 19 New York and western New-England counties to the extensive databases they use for reference.
“This will go way into the stratosphere,” said meteorologist Ian Lee, holding up what looked like a Chinese take-out box stuffed with wires. He explained it to be a bundle of temperature, humidity, wind and pressure sensors. Similar instruments are tethered to weather balloons and launched from the facility roof twice a day.
On the hourlong ride up, the boxes transmit valuable high-altitude measurements back to Lee on the ground. When the balloons pop at around 100,000 feet, a parachute opens, bringing the box gently to earth, sometimes a few states away.
“We had one land in someone’s driveway in Vermont,” said hydrologist Britt Westergard. “They called the bomb squad because they didn’t know what it was.”
Weather balloons have been used for years. The information they gather is indispensable to making accurate forecasts, but the largest recent step toward a Weather-Ready Nation was made by social media.
The NWS Albany started a Facebook page just a few weeks before Tropical Storm Irene swept through the Capital Region. General forecaster Brian Furgis posts weather warnings, updates and meteorology tidbits.
Nearly 4,000 people “like” the page after just over a year and a strong community has grown up around it.
“We’ve had people let us know if they’re seeing rain or snow,” Furgis said, “or how much they’ve gotten.”
He’s also in charge of the Twitter account opened last month under @NWSAlbany.
Over the summer a cellular alert system was put in place as well.
“Eighty-five percent of people have a cellphone now,” Montgomery said. “That’s more people than have weather radios.”
Most cellphone owners are automatically enrolled in the system. So, while residents may have had to search out weather updates as water rose during Irene, when the next storm hits, many will just get a text message.
For extensive information on local weather, visit www.erh.noaa.gov/aly/.