Where the Weather Comes From: a Visit to Seattle’s NOAA National Weather Service
The nondescript signs at Magnuson Park. The security gate you accidentally head towards—and have to make a U-turn. The mysterious government buildings in the distance looking like a scene from Stranger Things. Until now these furtive glances had been my impression of NOAA’s National Weather Service Seattle offices at Sand Point. Recently Seattle Greenlaker was invited for a tour of their facility to pull back the curtain on this service that is so often taken for granted: weather forecasting.
Josh Smith is one of the facility’s 19 meteorologists and led the tour. “I decided to become a meteorologist after the storms of 2006 and 2008,” referring to the winter storms of those years. He graduated from the University of Washington—one of only a handful of universities offering a true meteorology degree.
Inside the building, past NOAA’s bold logo, and down a long corridor, is the National Weather Service Operations Center. It looks, actually, pretty awesome. Lots of screens. Computers. Big maps. Books and binders of “Really Scientific Information That Could Save Lives By Predicting Storms.” And that massive view of Lake Washington. You know, to look at the weather.
The operations center is divided up into a number of desks, each stationed with a meteorologist with their own responsibility depending on the season and speciality. These desks include the Public Forecaster Desk (staffed 24 hours a day), the Aviation & Marine Desk, the Fire Weather Desk (summer months only), and the Hydrology Desk (during fall & winter for flood prediction).
How the forecast is created
Much of how we experience NOAA is in the forecast of course. It all starts with readings on the ground, from satellites, ships and buoys at sea. These observations go into weather models—programs running on supercomputers in Washington D.C., Colorado, and our own UW. The meteorologists have access to a wide range or weather models, and the final forecast is hand-tuned for our local geography.
“We know that one model might be more accurate in some conditions, or another model in different conditions,” says Smith. “A tough day is when these models don’t agree, where one is predicting a major storm in 5 days, and the other is predicting sun.” Check out the National Weather Service’s Seattle Area Forecast Discussion, a behind-the-scenes look at the forecast where you might learn more about a meteorologist’s angst.
And for all these predictions there is quality control: automated weather verifications email the meteorologists who’s forecasts were particularly good (or bad) with the hope of making predictions better. “We do still beat the computer models,” says Smith. “The models are getting better, but they are still not great at predicting the catastrophic events.”
In addition to meteorologists, NOAA’s staff in Seattle also includes electronics technicians who service the dozens of monitoring stations throughout the area. Their space is also shared with the seasonal Northwest Avalanche Center, whose members work during winter to keep the mountains safe.
How you can get involved
The National Weather Service has a Citizen Weather Observing program, where on-the-ground measurements from all over the country contribute to more accurate forecasting models. (There is only one near Green Lake on 85th today). You can also follow NOAA Seattle on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
See the rest of the visit at the gallery below.