On a day in first grade, Jerry Combs and his classmates were called in from recess because of a tornado warning. As he took shelter in his Missouri elementary school, Combs was more intrigued than frightened.
“I’m pretty sure I was the only kid not crying,” he said.
Combs turned his interest in the weather into a career at the National Weather Service in Gray. He is one of 15 meteorologists who work in that office, which collects and shares raw data used by cellphone apps, TV meteorologists, government agencies and pretty much everybody else to forecast the weather.
It’s essential information. At this time of year, it’s key to calling a snow day, canceling a flight or leaving the skis in the garage.
“Even if it’s not our forecast, there’s no way that forecast would have been made in the first place without that observational backbone,” said Donny Dumont, a warning coordination meteorologist in Gray.
The National Weather Service is a 24/7 operation with 122 forecast offices across the country. Maine has two. The Gray office covers all of New Hampshire and the western half of Maine, while the Caribou office covers the eastern half. The locations were originally determined by the range of early Doppler radar technology. These offices also issue aviation forecasts and marine forecasts up to 25 nautical miles off the coast. The weather service falls under the umbrella of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and has a total budget of $1.3 billion.
Friday morning was cold but calm, a welcome lull after three snowstorms in a week. Dumont estimated the Gray office had conducted six briefings with government agencies during just one of last week’s storms.
“We can have the best forecasts in the world, but if somebody does not know how to react to that forecast information or understand the threat or the perceived threat correctly, we still have fatalities,” he said.
Inside the brick building on Weather Lane, the office looked much like any other, except each meteorologist is surrounded by a half-dozen computer monitors. Combs worked on the long-term forecast (Sunday to the following Friday), while Derek Schroeter considered the short-term forecast (the next 36 hours). Rainbow maps and detailed charts filled their screens. The Weather Channel played on one TV, while another streamed a live YouTube video of a weather cam near First Connecticut Lake in northern New Hampshire. An icicle obscured much of the view, but flurries were still visible.
“Up there, the radar coverage is pretty poor,” said Combs. “We try to get these webcams to see if precipitation is actually falling.”
One screen had an online chat monitored by TV stations. Another meteorologist in Gray had posted at 6:15 a.m.: “Good morning! It is going to be noticeably more quiet out there today.” He reported the basic weather synopsis – breezy conditions expected the next day, a weak system that could bring a couple of inches of snow to central and northern areas on Sunday – and encouraged anyone to reach out with questions.
THE AUTHORITATIVE SOURCE
The Gray office always staffs at least two meteorologists on each of three shifts. Government meteorologists in this region usually make between $50,000 and $130,000, depending on their seniority and length of time with the weather service. They update the forecast for the next week at 3:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. each day and provide more frequent updates for the next 12 hours. The office is the authoritative source for any watches, warnings or advisories.
The National Weather Service posts an incredible amount of data online for free but doesn’t offer its own app. The agency doesn’t compete with the private sector, Dumont explained. The NWS does post on social media. On Friday, @NWSGray tweeted: “If anyone is wondering where we stand for the month of Jan in terms of temperatures so far, most areas are running 6 to 10 degrees above normal which is impressive. Probably a top 3 warmest Jan on record for most, possibly #1 in Portland when all is said and done.”
National Weather Service information comes from multiple sources: satellite, radar, automated equipment on the ground. Some offices, including the one in Gray, also collect upper air observations. That means that they release balloons twice a day to collect information in the atmosphere up to 100,000 feet or so. That’s where the balloons pop and parachute to the ground.
They are biodegradable, but Dumont said you can also mail them back to a weather service office if you find one in your backyard. “People do find them on trees,” he said. This launch happens around the world at the same time. It’s called Z-time, Zulu time or Coordinated Universal Time. At this time of year, the office in Gray releases its balloons around 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Also key to the forecasts are more than 2,000 volunteers. The snow total in your town? It probably came from a neighbor with a measuring stick. The Gray office hosts six to eight trainings every year for people who want to get involved. Some people report warning signs for severe weather or gather data after storms. Others report temperatures, snow totals and rain amounts using simple, at-home equipment. In some areas, that data goes back 100 years or more.
Schroeter remembered measuring the snow outside his home in Saco during a snowstorm while he was growing up. Today, being a meteorologist means fielding all sorts of questions about the weather from friends and family. He said the most common one he gets is, “What channel are you on?” There are also questions about whether ski conditions will be good enough to merit calling in sick.
He said one of the hardest parts of his job is explaining that forecasts contain scale analysis and do not zero in on exact locations. That means there might be large variations even over short distances; for example, your house might get more snow than someone else in your town.
“We can’t pinpoint what the temperature is on your backyard thermometer,” he said.
The weather service is also loath to forecast beyond seven days, even though other meteorologists do use raw NWS data to look that far. The weather service is particularly cautious when it comes to predicting snowfall totals, especially in coastal areas where flakes can quickly become raindrops – or vice versa.
“It’s like art,” said Schroeter. “We’re supposed to be getting it as right as possible the day before, so we’re planning with municipalities and DOT. We’re not putting out snowfall forecasts within 72 hours.”
But that doesn’t mean the staff in Gray don’t keep a sharp and patient eye on those monitors. On Friday morning, Combs and Schroeter clicked from map to map, checking on that weak system on its way from Canada and highlighting the marine area where a small craft advisory was in place. Their next update would post in just a few hours, and their shift would turn over into the next one, but the forecasting wouldn’t stop.
“It’s humbling in that it impacts everybody every day,” said Combs.
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