Saturday, July 22, 2017  

Standing Watch Over Our Weather


Thunderheads built in the distance as our Jamestown-Scotland ferry crossed the James headed for Surry County. Beyond laid Sussex County and the town of Wakefield where the National Weather Service (NWS) maintains one of 122 field offices across the country. As we neared the station, the towering onion-shaped Doppler radar dome, along with several satellite dishes, came into view. Here, in the middle of rural Southside Virginia, a team of thirteen meteorologists, a hydrologist, information technology and systems experts, and forecast interns man the station 24/7 to keep watch over our weather.

When I signed up to participate in the NWS’s Skywarn program a few years ago, I had no way of knowing that just three weeks after completing the program as a trained weather spotter I would be phoning in to the Wakefield office at 3am to report a severe thunderstorm with nickel-sized hail. The phone answered on the second ring and before long my information scrolled across the bottom of local television stations as a weather warning.

The National Weather Service is a component of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an operating unit of the US Department of Commerce. The NWS’s mission is to provide weather, water, climate data, forecasts and warnings for the protection of life and property and enhancement of the national economy. Founded in 1870, the NWS has evolved from mere physical observations to a sophisticated network that tracks Earth’s ever-changing systems.

“Our Wakefield office is responsible for sixty-six jurisdictions,” Meteorologist-in-Charge Jeffrey Orrock points out. “This includes Ocean City, Maryland, all of central and southeastern Virginia, the Eastern Shore, the mid and southern Chesapeake Bay, Atlantic coastal waters south of Fenwick Island, Delaware, and northeastern North Carolina, including portions of the northern Outer Banks.”

It’s a huge area with diverse micro-climates and temperature gradients that present forecast challenges year round. The region is subject to a cornucopia of weather events: thunderstorms, tropical cyclones, tornadoes, nor’easters, ice storms, arctic blasts of frigid cold, and those infamous southern blizzards. The ocean and bay are vital to our area’s economy but also act as unique weather makers as well.

In this region “fishing and shipping are two of our big focuses,” Orrock explains. “Marine terminals, commercial and recreational fishermen, beaches, tourism, aviation, fire dangers and prescribed burns all require specialized forecasting.”
NWS Wakefield supports other government agencies as well—the Coast Guard, Air Force, Homeland Security, state and local Emergency Management Services, NOAA Weather Radio and Automated Weather Observing Systems at local airports. They also partner with institutions such as VIMS and ODU in conjunction with sea level rise studies.

Weather data is gathered from dozens of government entities and reporting sources within the NWS. NOAA’s eyes in the sky, Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites, provide continuous monitoring as they circle the Earth in a geosynchronous orbit at speeds matching the Earth’s rotation, allowing them to hover continuously over one position on the surface. At 22,300 miles up, they search for atmospheric triggers—tornadoes, hail storms, hurricanes and are able to monitor a developing storm and track its movement.

Polar-Orbiting Weather Satellites constantly circle the Earth in a north-south orbit, measuring a variety of solar activities, tracking atmospheric variables, and providing images of cloud coverage used for long term forecasting.

The National Data Buoy Center maintains a series of moored buoys and coastal marine automated networks that provide meteorological observations in US coastal waters. C-Man stations are installed on lighthouses, capes, beaches and near-shore islands, gathering data on sea water temperatures, water levels, wave actions, and hourly weather observations.

The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, OK forecasts the risk of severe storms and wildfire potential in the contiguous US, issuing short term outlooks, watches and warnings they coordinate with field offices in affected areas.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami is responsible 
for tracking and predicting tropical weather systems in the northeastern Pacific and northern Atlantic oceans. During hurricane season, from June 1 to November 30, the agency issues routine tropical weather outlooks, watches and warnings as deemed appropriate. Once a tropical system moves inland, has weakened below tropical status yet still poses a threat to life and property, the system is handed off to the Weather Prediction Center in College Park, MD that issues storm summaries 
as long as risks remain.

Lastly, River Forecast Centers run hydrological models of predicted rainfall and its impact on water levels in rivers and streams. Locally, the NWS’s Skywarn is a volunteer program with nearly 290,000 trained severe weather spotters providing real time reports of severe weather in their immediate locales.

All of this data flows into the Wakefield office, ingested into its computers, disseminated, and released in the form of daily forecasts, short and long term forecast predictions, watches 
and warnings.

During prolonged severe weather events, the Wakefield staff will be augmented with additional personnel, conference rooms converted to sleeping quarters as weather data from all over the country pours in. At times the station itself can become isolated due to downed trees, ice, snow, and power outages. Large diesel generators keep the station running and the forecasts coming.

Forecasting weather along the coast is especially challenging. “The ocean-land interaction is always complex,” Orrock 
explains. “The dynamics of the ocean and bay affect wind speeds and wind direction, sometimes taking forecasters 
by surprise. The fact is there are fewer sensors out over the ocean, a loss of observational data that makes forecasting in 
our region difficult.”

Private vendors, such as The Weather Channel, Accuweather, national and local television forecasters use their own data interpretations that at times create widely varying forecasts that are confusing and frustrating for viewers.

“It has gotten confusing”, Orrock admits. “There are so many weather apps out there and so many models that can be manipulated to create a forecast that at times we question their conclusions. But it’s a symbiotic relationship as well. We rely on all our partners to get the word out to the public and we try to ensure they are as consistent as possible, and in turn they rely on us for up-to-the-minute data.”

“The big surprises rarely creep up on us anymore. With sophisticated technology to dissect the weather and understand it, as science and weather models have evolved, the more we are able to simulate what’s going on in the atmosphere, the understanding of what’s going to occur has gotten better. We may not be able to say exactly where a storm’s bull’s eye will be, but we know there will be one.”

No subject of weather would be complete without a discussion on hurricanes, the single biggest threat to our region. “Hurricane predictions have become much more accurate”, Orrock points out. “For this area, when a hurricane approaches, it usually has a defined forward motion. It’s not as static as the storms down around Florida or the Gulf Coast. Here the storms are often being impacted by weather systems at the mid latitudes, speeding it up, slowing it down, or steering its course. Exact timing becomes the challenge, especially when you’re 72 hours out.”

“In the past ten years we’ve had Katrina and Sandy; our benchmark here is the 1933 hurricane. Unless you were alive in 1933, no one in this office has ever truly experienced a hurricane in this region. Isabel and Irene were both sub-hurricane status when they arrived. The big storms are very infrequent but occasionally we do get one. If we are ever faced with a category 2 or 3 storm that rides up the Outer Banks, clips Virginia Beach and comes into the middle bay, our job will be to make sure folks know this is going to be catastrophic.

The images we’ve seen of Katrina, Sandy, or Camille, that will be the bay, all if it—the Peninsula, Middle Peninsula, Hampton Roads, the Eastern Shore. It will be devastation like we’ve never seen. If you’re planning on staying, don’t expect a lot of help; plan on being self-sufficient for weeks. The place will be isolated. The only way relief will arrive will be by air because all the shipping channels will be closed and bridges damaged. It’s a bleak picture and I hope it doesn’t happen in my lifetime.”

Orrock points to a map on the wall showing flood inundations during the 1933 storm. With sea levels rising, a storm of this magnitude could be better or worse, depending on its track. “Storms have defined this region geographically and historically for centuries and they will again.”

As the ‘Pocahontas’ left the ferry terminal headed to Jamestown, the wind was rising, whitecaps were building, and storm clouds loomed ominously. I thought back to Orrock’s comments, especially about hurricanes. I rode out Isabel in my home in Gloucester surrounded by tall trees and vowed then I’d never do it again. But in 2011 I stayed for Irene as well. Neither were major storms when they struck, although they seemed horrific at the time. I recall Orrock’s contingency plans should a big storm approach—he plans to fly his family to Texas.

If you’d like more information on NWS Wakefield, please visit their website at www.weather.gov/akq where you will find links to other NWS websites.