Storm watch: Inside the National Weather Service

While the robotic voice announcing emergency alerts over your NOAA weather radio sounds like it couldn’t be further from life, there are actually dozens of real people behind the message who are working to save lives.

I recently got a behind the scenes look at the National Weather Service (NWS) Forecast Office in Shreveport, Louisiana. Local TV meteorologists and other staff from six Ark-La-Tex television stations participated in a workshop to coordinate ways to better serve the public.

2012 March 10- National Weather Service Shreveport Media Workshop 02

We toured their complex, located along the edge of the Shreveport Regional Airport grounds. Also housed on the property, a weather balloon launch and tracking station, as well as the Doppler radar site. In January the radar equipment will be upgraded to a dual polarization radar, providing greater ability to detect and measure hail and other meteorological objects. ‘Dual Pol’ also will bring enhanced resolution and allow meteorologists to more accurately determine where heavy rain is falling at that moment. It will be particularly useful during tornadic weather. Wind measurement will improve, helping identify if a tornado has touched the ground, as well as pick up tornado debris on radar returns.

Storm Watch: Inside the National Weather Service 2
NWS Shreveport staff and media from KTRE, KLTV, KETK, KYTX, KSLA, and KTBS.

While most of the 122 NWS Forecast Office staffers are degreed meteorologists, their duties range from information technology, forecasting, hydrology, and upper atmosphere observation. The office also provides weekly weather briefings each Thursday for local media, emergency management, and local government officials in a 48 county/parish forecast area. Meteorologists also conduct damage surveys in the region after severe storms.

The workshop provided a detailed explanation of the Forecast Office’s products and projects.

Social Media and Technology

Meteorologists, emergency management, and other officials can communicate directly with forecasters using a secure, online chat room.  In addition to weekly weather briefings, the web chat is a critical tool during severe weather events. Officials, media, and the NWS relay damage reports and hyper-local conditions. This brings local media meteorologists into the process, helping protect lives and property.

The NWS Shreveport Office maintains a Facebook page, allowing interaction with the public and sharing forecast information. Though, they shy away from posting warnings and other alerts, wanting their website to remain the official outlet for emergency information. The office also expects to join the “Twitterverse,” pending approval at the Federal level.

Storm Watch: Inside the National Weather Service 4
The National Weather Service has been recording regional weather observations from Shreveport for the past 134 years.

Weather-Ready Nation

According to the NWS, the average losses incurred from thunderstorms have increased five-fold since 1980. The “Weather Ready Initiative” aims to create a public that is prepared for and responds to weather events.

Through the program, the NWS will provide support and connect weather services to states, FEMA, & national media in areas impacted by weather events. The process also involves setting goals to improve forecast accuracy and lead times on warnings. Nine test projects are also being developed in forecast offices across the country to explore future efforts and services of the NWS.

2012 Spring Outlook and Drought Update 

With above-normal rainfall this winter, it appears the Winter outlook was off for precipitation. The Ark-La-Tex region was forecast to have been 50 percent drier over the last few months. Forecasters say the drought started in March 2010. In the time since, we have seen 69 percent of normal rainfall, about 66.9 inches. Warning Coordination Meteorologist Keith Stellman said March through May will be key months to determine if the region can emerge from drought. The odds  favor La Niña ending and eventually shifting to an El Niño pattern. Stellman said the forecast is looking warmer than normal this March, April, and May. El Niño years statistically see fewer tornadoes, according to the NWS. That’s welcome news for many, as 2011 saw the 2nd-most number of tornadoes in a single year.

Conveying Important Weather Information

Most Americans get their weather information from local TV, according to Senior Meteorologist Bill Parker. He explained that the NWS realizes the a strong relationship with local media will benefit everyone involved. There’s always room for improvement, so the government conducts Service Assessments of the NWS response and products to identify growth opportunities. Parker said these are usually conducted after a weather event is responsible for large-scale property damage or loss of life.

Storm Watch: Inside the National Weather Service 3
This is where NWS weather balloons are launched twice daily and every six hours when a hurricane is in the Gulf. Hydrogen is used because it is significantly cheaper than helium. More than 100 sites around the U.S. launch balloons daily.

The Shreveport office has an impressive accuracy in forecasting the weather. One staff member said their office has a warning false alarm rate that’s 15% lower than most other NWS offices.

The southern region of the United States is home to the most active weather in the world, making communication and cooperation the foundation of helping 77 million residents make informed decisions about their family’s safety.

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of KTRE/KLTV-TV or Raycom Media.  They are solely the opinion of the author. All content © Copyright 2012 Lane Luckie

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