A team of forecasters at the National Weather Service bureau in Tucson use the latest technology to turn weather data into accurate forecasts and timely advisories. Their busiest season, the monsoon, is over now. But during the recent rainy season, we got an inside look at the operations center on a relatively busy day.
By Mark Duggan
The National Weather Service’s Tucson bureau is a fairly fascinating place for a weather enthusiast. Dozens of computer screens flash various radar angles and columns of data. This place never closes; there’s always at least a couple of meteorologists on duty, even on holidays and times of year when Tucson’s weather is uneventful.
We visit the operations center on a busy day, as angry monsoon storm clouds gathered in the skies over the city. The center was buzzing.
Three meteorologists tracked various storm cells on their radar displays, another forecaster checked incoming data from rain gauges, and took calls from weather spotters in the field.
Science and Operations Officer J.J. Brost loves weather. He can’t conceal his excitement about it, or anything having to do with it. He eagerly scans his bank of radar screens and zeroes in on a bright red area of heavy rain near Sierra Vista, in an area affected by the Monument Fire.
Even a small amount of rainfall in the burn area could cause disastrous erosion. But incoming data from rain gauges show that runoff is, for now, moderate.
Ken Drozd leans in to examine the radar image on one of his computer monitors. It’s a newly developing storm cell over Cienega Creek east of Tucson. The runoff could eventually affect Pantano Wash at Harrison Road.
He scans the storm with different radar resolutions and angles and checks a few rain gauges. He’s the bureau’s Warning Coordination Meteorologist, in charge of issuing weather advisories when conditions warrant.
After consulting his data, he decides to issue a flood advisory for the area downstream from Cienega Creek. His fingers flash over a keyboard and the computer that runs the NOAA Weather Radio broadcasts starts playing a message about the warning.
A moment later, the local TV stations, which can be monitored in the operations center, broadcast the advisory as a crawler underneath afternoon soap operas.
Meteorologists also release a weather balloon from the roof twice each day. They use it to collect forecasting data. A weather sensor and radio transmitter are attached to a tether that will trail below the balloon.
As the balloon ascends to more than 110,000 feet, the sensor collects data such as temperature and barometric pressure. The transmitter feeds it back to a computer at the weather office.
Tucson’s meteorologists admit they’re a little spoiled by the relatively sedate weather of the desert. No hurricanes or tornadoes to deal with, for the most part. But that doesn’t make their jobs of watching the skies any less important.
Learn more about weather at JetStream, the National Weather Service Online Weather School
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