It was my day off.
Why does bad weather always happen on my day off?
But like any other Sunday, it started off perfectly normal. Sunday’s are pretty slow-going in my family, at least I’d like them to be. But, sometimes with a job that doesn’t stop at quitting time, you take advantage of the time when weather seems to be behaving to accomplish things other-than-work.
The past Friday had brought us a very tall, strong thunderstorm, dropping hail stones as large as golf balls just to the south of us during the mid-afternoon. Later that night, despite computer model guidance, we caught another spurt of potentially destructive thunderstorms moving in a line straight through us.
Normal springtime protocol here in Texas had me up all night Friday monitoring these storms, answering clients’ questions, and advising local government officials. Of course, since computer models and smartphones seemed to dismiss any idea of thunderstorms that evening, it was a little nerve-racking contradicting sources that the general populous blindly considers “credible”. But, I’d been bit before by these, and it was my job to beat the accuracy of such weather sources. And I did, but it cost me my long-needed rest. Who needs it anyway, I suppose.
I’m a weatherman in Texas during the springtime, what should I expect?
So I find myself out for my standard Sunday morning run. It’s a 3-mile course around the neighborhood- and most folks are still fast asleep as I jog the empty streets. It’s peaceful, and it isn’t too tiring unless I end up on a street running against the wind.
Just resistance training, I suppose.
After church, a quick look at the latest computer weather forecast model output perks my ears up a bit. That storm wasn’t there this morning! I was thinking of the storm as if it was already occurring…but my radar screen as blank. It wasn’t due for another four hours.
Weather forecasters like myself are trained to forecast weather that will occur, and if that fails, keep close tabs on weather occurring and extrapolate its movement and intensity through time and distance. But, in my line of work, if it’s happening, it’s too late. Here comes another Friday night, on a Sunday afternoon. And one of my client organizations has got a crew of airplanes they would like to bring into town this afternoon.
Supercell thunderstorms are typically the most violent, although we have to consider than any thunderstorm can be deadly with each strike of lightning topping roughly 100 million volts. Supercell thunderstorms also have the potential of carrying damaging wind gusts, heavy downpours that lead to flash-flooding, hail stones, and even tornadoes. And it was a supercell that I was forecasting.
Small hail, I said. Gusty winds. Should move through pretty quickly.
Several phone calls later after alerting what seemed half of the city of a strong (and hopefully not severe) thunderstorm that hadn’t even formed yet, and trying to convince the skeptics, it was time to sit back and hope for the best. What’s the best? An accurate forecast? No bad weather (but a big-time false alarm on my part)? Meteorologists are torn. I just parked by truck underneath a big tree in my front yard, just in case a sizable hail stone happened to target my windshield- I had already nearly totaled my other truck in a hail storm earlier in the year.
It’s funny. When the neighbors see the neighborhood weatherman parking his truck under a tree, they start moving their vehicles too.
He must know something we don’t.
And, there it was. Finally, a blip on the radar screen, exactly where I believed the storm would begin to build. If my forecast was correct, it would travel nearly fifty miles, slowly gaining strength, before it hit my town. That gave about an hour and a half of validation of my forecast (at its projected speed) before it impacted my clients and the local area.
Dinner’s Ready. My wife is such a sweetheart. Anyone who marries a meteorologist signs up for a non-routine lifestyle and plenty of days, or nights, of taking care of the house and family alone while their meteorologist lesser-half stays glued to the radar screen. But, dinner always seems to be ready right before the storm hits. I guess that’s why laptops and cell phones were invented.
Dang. As the storm moved closer with the intensity I had predicted, the National Weather Service issued a Severe Thunderstorm Warning. This means large hail, and damaging winds instead of the small hail and not-quite-so-damaging winds I had predicted. For my local government clients, I have to alert them of this warning, even though I personally don’t agree with it. They understand…it’s always better to be safe than sorry, and the National Weather Service usually does a pretty good job.
Who would be right?
Ping, Ping. Pea-sized hail began to fall, but only for a few seconds. Then, a crack of lightning real close by. A house up the street has some really tall palm trees, they seem to be lightning magnets. Out went the power. At least dinner was out of the oven and on the table. But my internet connection was now lost, and so was my radar screen. If it didn’t come back within a minute or so, I’d have to tether my cell phone to my laptop and regain connectivity- but it did.
The rain and gusty winds came for about ten or fifteen minutes, followed by the cold-pool of fresh air. Thunderstorms create a pool of cold air in their wake because the energy that fuels them- and the energy used by the atmosphere to evaporate their rainfall- exists in the form of heat. As this energy is used up by the atmosphere trying to neutralize itself, heat is lost, leading to what is known as a “cold pool”.
Phew. Everyone is happy. How often does that happen? Forecast right on the money, and a non-damaging thunderstorm. I’ll hang my head high and finish dinner. Gratification from a “job well done” by the local emergency manager- a sigh of relief.
Any meteorologist that says they’re always right is, well, wrong. But this time, it paid off.
It’s always a gamble, and sometimes the weather cooperates with my forecast, and sometime it doesn’t. It’s the times that it doesn’t that make me second-guess my forecast for the time that it does, and I have to make a determination of how I communicate my uncertainty, with absolute certainty. When you’re paid to beat smartphone weather applications and the evening news weather anchor, it’s no joke. People put their lives, their property, their business, and their trust in your hands- and it only takes one incorrect forecast, or one sleepy eyelid, and that reputation is gone.
- Dan Schreiber (Meteorologist)
Dan Schreiber is an operational meteorologist, with experience