Today’s weather tools mean faster forecasts

February 13

It has been a busy winter for weather watchers. One storm system after the next has brought bitter cold and snow to much of the United States. How do meteorologists keep up? In this digital age filled with lightning-fast wireless Internet, gigabytes of weather data are available around the clock with the simple touch of a screen. But where does the information come from? It’s gathered by moving weather tools in outer space, in the atmosphere and on the ground.

From sky and space

The computer is the main tool meteorologists use to view and forecast the weather. It can display temperature maps, which are easy to read. But those maps are the final product. The information on them often comes from up in the air or out in space.

Weather satellites called GOES (that’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites) orbit the Earth and gather information by taking pictures, measuring clouds’ temperatures and determining the amount of moisture in the atmosphere.

These satellites have improved in recent years. They can take very clear pictures of any area above Earth. They also transmit the information very quickly. Only a few years ago, meteorologists would have to wait 30 minutes to see a picture taken by a satellite. Now, the image will appear in a minute!

Weather balloons, filled with helium or hydrogen, are another way of tracking weather conditions in the air. The six-foot-tall balloons float up to 100,000 feet and measure wind speed, air temperature, air pressure and humidity with a device called a radiosonde. The National Weather Service releases 92 of them twice a day from its offices across the country. (The balloons usually burst after about two hours, and the radiosondes float back to the ground with the help of a parachute.)

The information from satellites and weather balloons is sent automatically to a supercomputer. What’s a supercomputer? A supercomputer is a computer that can process incredible amounts of data in a very short amount of time. Imagine a large black refrigerator. Now imagine hundreds of those refrigerators taking up the entire floor, or several floors, of an office building! That’s a supercomputer. A government agency called the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is in charge of most supercomputers used to process weather data.

Supercomputers convert the satellite and balloon information into colorful maps. Meteorologists can then access those maps from their personal computers or mobile devices.

Driving into a storm

In addition to satellites and balloons, vehicles have become an important way to collect weather data. One of the coolest is the Doppler on Wheels, or DOW. Need a visual? Picture a giant satellite dish mounted on the bed of a truck

DOWs have been used for years to study weather conditions around thunderstorms, but they are increasingly being used for other research, such as measuring tornado wind speeds and tracking lake-effect snow bands (areas of heavy snow often found near the Great Lakes).

These DOWs can be driven near or even into a storm to take weather observations and log that data into a computer. The computer organizes the data into an easy-to-read form: a map, a chart or a picture.

The speed at which meteorologists can gather and view data from supercomputers and mobile devices has made forecasting the weather much faster and more accurate. A meteorologist can read, revise or create a forecast while away from the office or weather station using a mobile device, and the forecast can then be broadcast on television in just minutes.

What meteorologists think

Several meteorologists told KidsPost how their jobs have evolved since they started and how it might change as new weather tools and technologies become available.

Kelly Cass of the Weather Channel: The forecast has come a long way, thanks to advancing technology. When I can e-mail my kids’ principal to warn them of an impending storm, I feel like I’m helping to protect not just my own kids there but everyone there.

Chris Fisher of the National Weather Service: The major change in the last three years is the use of social media. When I started, we weren’t using it at all; now we are using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube on a daily basis. It has no doubt benefited the agency and the public as an additional avenue to get lifesaving information out quickly. In the next 10 years, I see the [National Weather Service] continuing to expand our social media presence.

Jim Cantore of the Weather Channel: Social media as a weather tool . . . is a great way to pass information on and get information out quickly. It is also a two-way street. Not only do I share information, but I can also receive it. It makes spreading quality information easy, especially from people I trust. There’s no other medium that brings the weather community together better.

Weather Tech for Kids

Kids who enjoy learning about weather should check out an app and a Web site designed especially for them.

Kid Weather is an app created by a former Baltimore meteorologist and his 6-year-old son. You pick an avatar — either a person, a dog or a cat — and type in a Zip code. The temperature and weather conditions for that area will appear along with your avatar, which will be wearing clothing appropriate for the day’s forecast. (That makes getting dressed for school easy!)

If you click on a small clock, you can find out how the forecast will change over the next 24 hours. There’s also a trivia section, which includes weather expressions, a Fahrenheit-to-Celsius temperature converter and fun facts about clouds, extreme weather, weather tools and other topics. You also can create weekly weather charts for your area.

$1.99. Available for iPhone, iPad, iPod touch and Android devices. Ages 5 to 10.

The Web site Weather Wiz Kids explains lots of weather events, such as thunder, lightning, winter storms, tornadoes and hurricanes. (Do you know the difference between a hurricane and a typhoon? They’re actually the same kind of storm, but the term for them is different in various parts of the world.) It also features several dozen weather experiments, including the popular tornado in a jar. In Career Corner, meteorologist Crystal Wicker explains which classes to take to become a meteorologist. Even kids who don’t plan on making forecasting a career can have fun with the site’s weather games and very silly jokes.

Visit Weather Wiz Kids at www.weatherwizkids.com.

— Kathryn Prociv

Prociv works for the Weather Channel as a weather content producer. She also contributes to Capital Weather Gang, The Washington Post’s weather-blogging team.

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