Technology Gives Forecasters Advantage in Predicting Storms

February 20, 2013
By
Weather forecasters in the old days – as shown here circa 1905 – had few instruments to predict the weather, giving residents and emergency personnel little information or warning for preparations. Mostly, they used reports from ships and from telegraph operators (note the telegraph on the desk).

Weather forecasters in the old days – as shown here circa 1905 – had few instruments to predict the weather, giving residents and emergency personnel little information or warning for preparations. Mostly, they used reports from ships and from telegraph operators (note the telegraph on the desk).

When satellites weren’t circling in orbit and radar didn’t scan the skies for every perceptible piece of precipitation, storms such as the blizzard ‘Nemo’ came upon residents of Revere with very little warning – sometimes with no warning at all.

That is in stark contrast to the situation today, where weather forecasts for a major storm begin to publicize warnings nearly a week in advance. Such warnings help public safety and public works crews formulate advanced plans, and they also assist residents in stockpiling food and arranging for heating oil deliveries.

All in all, there is a major difference between storm preparations. Even 25 years ago, according to the National Weather Service (NWS), forecasts were not as accurate and certainly not able to predict conditions in the long-term.

“The lead times were not as extensive and the forecast info wasn’t as specific,” said Chris Vaccaro, a spokesman for the NWS Northeast Region. “Forecasts were still pretty good, but they have gotten a lot better in the last 20 years with enhanced super computers and enhanced atmospheric modeling, as well as radar improvements and satellite technology. The technology advances combine with a better understanding of how the activity in the atmosphere is playing out, which allows forecasts to be more accurate and further out in time.

“The perfect examples are with Irene, Sandy, and now, Nemo,” he continued. “Communities were getting advanced forecasts about these storms from the NWS several days to a week in advance.”

GETTING READY, BUT FOR WHAT?

Of course, that wasn’t always the case, and it took quite a toll on those responsible for clearing the streets and restoring the city to livable conditions.

“We used to get some notice from the weather observers that in a day or two there might be some kind of storm coming – that we should be ready,” said former DPW Superintendent Harvey Corin (now a Zoning Board member), who served under Mayor Bill Reinstein in the 1970s. “We never got a week’s notice or forecasts that were really accurate. Sometimes they would happen and sometimes nothing would happen. For the most part, we had to always be ready in the winter, but we also had a lot more guys in the DPW back then.”

Corin said he didn’t have a lot of equipment, but it was always ready to go.

“We had a backhoe and a front loader and a bunch of junk trucks, but the plows were always set up and ready – all they had to do was hook them up and go,” he said. “I even drove them at times, and it was no picnic in Beachmont. Sometimes you took your life in your own hands.”

Revere Fire Chief Gene Doherty said he remembers that there was very little lead time in notification for the Blizzard of `78 and for the No Name Storm of 1991.

“In the past we would get information that there was going to be a storm, or that we were getting some snow,” he said. “You truly didn’t know much else until the storm hit and then you’d be looking around saying, ‘When is this thing going to end.’ You just didn’t know much information.

“We do get updates and prepare better now, but it’s still not an exact science,” he continued. “Certainly, it’s far better than it used to be though…Just this past blizzard, the NWS right from the get-go that the North Shore would be hit, but that we’d be alright. They said the South Shore would be the one to really get pounded, and they were right. They said that from the get-go and it helped us to be ready and know what we were facing. We definitely pay attention to what the NWS tells us.”

TAKING A SURPRISE HIT WAS COMMON

In fact, weather in New England was much more villainous in the past – in the sense that it could creep up on a community at any time and temporarily destroy the lives of unsuspecting residents – as well as catching first responders without an advanced plan of attack.

Such was the case in the 1938 Hurricane that hit Long Island, Rhode Island – and even Revere – quite by surprise.

While the government had tracked the storm off of Puerto Rico with seriousness, but it was expected to fizzle out. However, when it actually accelerated, weather monitoring technology was so low that the storm descended upon the northern coast much to everyone’s surprise.

The Revere Journal reported that 100 mph winds and heavy rains came suddenly from the south in the late afternoon of Sept. 21, 1938.

“Old-time residents of Revere were unanimous in the assertion that the storm was without parallel in Revere,” read the Journal’s account of the storm. “Trees were uprooted, telephone and telegraph poles and wires were blown down, roofs and chimneys were swept away as though they were paper, and in many cases, sidewalks were torn apart.”

Said Vaccaro, “That storm caught a lot of people by surprise. They really weren’t ready.”

Even more damage was done to Revere during an Aug. 31st Hurricane in 1954 (Hurricane Carol), which caught the entire city by surprise and did the what would be $7.1 million in damages in today’s dollars.

Whole buildings were ripped apart on Shirley Avenue and the amusements on the Beach were toppled and torn to shreds. Flooding was significant and the entire city was without electricity for many days – and all of it happened with little, or in some cases, no advanced warning.

BETTER RADAR A KEY TO PREDICTIONS

That was because forecasters did not have much to work with – especially in terms of satellite technology looking down from above and radar technology sweeping and analyzing the local skies.

Vaccaro said forecasters relied primarily on reports from ships out at sea, telephone relayed information, telegraph messages and a crude buoy system to detect sea disruptions. Naturally, the typical channels through word of mouth reports also existed – as forecasters further down the coast would often pass along storm information to their colleagues further up the coast.

But in those days, radar was non-existent.

Even when radar came on the scene, it often didn’t give much information, but simply appeared as a green blob – essentially showing that something was there, though no one knew exactly what it was.

“In the first radar images used by forecasters, sometimes it would just look like a green blob popping up on the screen,” said Vaccaro. “In the late `80s and into the `90s, the NWS modernized into the Doppler Radar System. We’ve actually progressed so quickly that we’re getting into the next evolution of that radar with double pole technology. These radars are just so much more sophisticated.

“Instead of radars that show various precipitations, radar can now determine where the storm is, the intensity of it and the type of precipitation,” he continued. “Radar can now differentiate between rain, sleet, snow and even helps to determine winds…Radar went from showing just some precipitation to truly analyzing the precipitation.”

With those advances, the days of the weatherman in the doghouse have become few and far between.

“In the past, they could have forecast for a storm, but the storm could have been far worse than expected,” said Vaccaro. “There could have been a forecast where the storm was to ruin an area and it completely missed. These scenarios of a missed forecast are hard to come by now. The perception of a forecast bust is becoming less and less of an issue. Forecasts are really becoming something that people and decision makers can trust and depend upon when making plans.”

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