In Bethel, a meteorologist from the National Weather Service is looking for citizen volunteers to help sharpen the information they use for their forecasts. Kaitlyn O’Brien said that the NWS relies on tips from local "weather spotters," especially for very local conditions.
"Anytime anyone sees an unusual weather event, or sees some sort of severe weather event like high winds or significant snowfall, we definitely want to know about it," said O'Brien.
O’Brien is based in Anchorage, but has been working out of Bethel’s weather station for the past few weeks. Every day she launches a weather balloon from a spot near Bethel’s airport that returns data about the winds and other conditions.
Weather forecasts are vital to rural Alaska’s public safety, particularly when it comes to aviation, but the agency has been having trouble filling positions that might soon be phased out due to automation; an automated balloon launcher was just tested on Kodiak Island. Alaska’s weather observation stations are emptier than most.
O’Brien declined to comment on the Weather Service's staffing issues or the automation initiative, which is a sore point between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Weather Service's employee's union, but she did say that the weather balloons she launches carry instrumentation that returns detailed information to forecasters, wherever they may be located.
"The information that we’re getting from that balloon launch is pretty critical to forecasting purposes," she said. "Having that temperature profile and relative humidity profile really advises the forecasts."
In addition, the NWS is looking to increase reporting of citizen observations from local communities, including certified weather spotters and river spotters, or pilots who help monitor breakups from the air.
"We would love to form a group of volunteers here on the ground that could call in and report what they’re seeing," said O'Brien. "We love verifying our snowfall and rainfall information. Having eyes on the ground is really helpful."
O’Brien is hosting an hour-long training for community members who want to become weather spotters. The event will be Saturday at the Bethel Cultural Center at 6:00 p.m.