Workding on forecasting the weather, not controlling it

By Ed Brock

Bent over a trio of large computer monitors, meteorologist Barry Gooden tries to accurately determine what Mother Nature has in mind for the next several days.

“We've got a front coming this way on Saturday,” said Gooden, one of 17 meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Peachtree City. “There'll be a chance of rain showers ... and then it'll cool off.”

One desk over, meteorologist Patricia Atwell focuses more on what will be happening in the next few hours. Like the other weather forecasters at the NWS office, Atwell is entrusted with the job of giving people bad news.

“A farmer may want rain and there is no rain. Or if you're planning a wedding you don't want it to rain,” Atwell said. “Then if it rains the farmer is happy but ...”

The building where Atwell works near Falcon Field Airport houses the weather forecast section as well as the Southeast River Forecast section that focuses on predicting how rain amounts affect river levels.

Once upon a time the National Weather Service had offices at every airport in the state so the staff could make surface observations. However, the invention and distribution of Automated Surface Observing Stations around the state around 1994 allowed for the service's operations to be centralized.

The Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System ties together the information from those stations, from offices around the nation, from stationary buoys and “mobile buoys” on ships at sea and from weather balloons to form the picture of the weather that appears on the computer screens in front of Atwell.

The office also has a facility from which they launch weather balloons twice a day, four times a day if there is a major weather event happening “just because it gives us a more complete picture,” Atwell said.

Attached to the balloon is the “radio sonde,” basically a small Styrofoam structure housing temperature, moisture and pressure sensors. As the balloon ascends, expanding from a diameter of five feet to about 20 feet before exploding, the radio sonde transmits information to a computer every six seconds.

In a way, the balloons are the most likely way the public will interact with the NWS staff, apart from calling in for a forecast.

“We've gotten calls from people who have had balloons draped over their house,” Atwell said.

Attached to the radio sonde is a bag with the address for the office so it can be mailed home. They recover about 15 percent of the devices, Atwell said, but most of them drift out over the ocean.

But even with all the associated technology, weather forecasting is an imperfect science. And people don't hesitate to call the NWS office and give them an earful when a missed forecast interferes with their plans. Those people she can understand, Atwell said, but there are those who have slightly less rational complaints.

“It's a very small percentage of people who ask why we're making the weather do what it's doing,” Atwell said. “We do our best to explain that we don't have actual control over the weather.”