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How Private Weather Companies Work with the National Weather Service

in News/Uncategorized/weather
A mezocyclone lightning storm with dark clouds forming over the plains in Tornado Alley.
A nighttime, tornadic mezocyclone lightning storm shoots bolt of electricity to the ground and lights up the field and dirt road in Tornado Alley.

By Ike Fredregill

Cowboy State Daily

The federal government provides the nation with free weather data, but most Americans get their day-to-day forecasts from private weather companies.  

“It goes back further than you would think — there’s always been some element of non-governmental weather services,” said Don Day Jr., DayWeather owner and meteorologist. “But, it really didn’t become more commercialized until the ’70s and ’80s.”

Newspapers, radio broadcasts and TV shows wanted specialized weather reports for their regions and graphics to illustrate what the data indicated, Day explained. 

Furthermore, private industries across the nation wanted the data interpreted to fit their needs.

“Quite honestly, the demand out there for specialized weather — the National Weather Service (NWS) wasn’t going to be able to handle everything,” Day said. 

Jonathan Porter, AccuWeather Vice President of Business Services and meteorologist, said private industry stepped up to meet the growing demand.

“This has been a real success story in terms of how companies work with their government,” Porter said. “People talk about public sector-private sector partnerships, and this is a scenario where the partnerships between the government and weather industry cost the American taxpayer nothing at all, because that data is already available, but (the partnership) yields huge benefits.”

By working with NWS to boost severe weather warning broadcasts, he said private weather companies could be helping save lives and reduce the economic impacts of significant weather events. 

Free to pay

To monetize free data, Day said private companies turned to traditional media outlets and special interest groups.

“A lot of private forecasting companies that were successful found a really good niche in TV and radio,” he said. “USA Today was a game changer. In the ’90s, they came out with this huge page with a color weather graphic for the whole country. All the sudden, if you were a daily newspaper in a medium-sized market, you had to have a weather page.”

While free, the data was raw and bulky. Weather companies translated the gobbledegook into localized data, added digestible graphics and used their expertise to interpret forecasts.  

“The federal government provides a very robust and rich set of weather data,” Porter said, adding AccuWeather also collects data from governments around the world. “We create value for our customers — over 1.5 billion a day in 200 different languages — by serving consumers the weather data they need for travel plans and their day-to-day lives. We also serve businesses, who use our specific insights about how weather could impact worker safety and business operations.”

In Wyoming, Accuweather provides weather data to railroad companies.

“Parts of Wyoming are certainly very windy,” Porter said. “We provide very specific warnings to railroad operators in terms of letting them know winds will be over 60 mph on this particular part of their track.”

Established under the U.S. Department of War in 1870, the Weather Service, which operates as part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was assigned to the Department of Commerce in 1940, said Jared Allen, a NWS warning coordination meteorologist based in Cheyenne.

“We mainly support our core partners in emergency management,” Allen said, explaining the agency’s primary mission is public safety. “But we do work with local broadcasters and enhance that relationship as much as we can, so they understand how to look at our product, ensuring our message and their message are as similar as possible for the public’s ease of interpretability.”

Working together

The relationship between private and public weather services has not always been sunny, Allen said.

“On occasion there can be challenges,” he explained. “One instance involved some private companies putting out their own weather alerts.”

While providing weather alerts to niche interest groups doesn’t interfere with the NWS mission, Allen said private companies broadcasting weather alerts to the general public can cause confusion, which could result in injury or loss of life.

“Depending on how they brand that alert and whether it correlates with a NWS alert,” he said, “that can unfortunately set a precedent of the public needing multiple sources of information before taking preventive action.”

Another conflict arose when President Donald Trump nominated Barry Lee Myers, a former AccuWeather chief executive, to run NOAA in 2017. Experts predicted that Myers being involved with the family-owned and operated AccuWeather would create a conflict of interest. While under Myers’ leadership, the company supported measures to limit the extent to which federal weather services could release information to the public, potentially allowing private companies to generate their own value-added products using the same information.

Myers’ nomination was stalled until 2019, when Myers withdrew because of health concerns. 

“There certainly has been growing pains about how to work together effectively,” Porter said. “But there’s been a realization over time that we can accomplish a lot more by working together.”

Day said his peers have bumped heads with the federal government on occasion, but he maintains a healthy working relationship with the feds.

“I have no problems with the weather service, and nine out of ten times we don’t compete for customers,” he explained. “But my position as a private weather forecaster is very different from others.”

If the government didn’t readily share its weather data, Day said he would be out of a job.

“There is a heavy reliance on government-provided data, no doubt,” he said. “Without the tax-funded, weather forecasting infrastructure, I’d have nothing.”

For AccuWeather, Porter said many of the past conflicts between private and public weather forecasters arose from lack of clarity.

“Especially in the ’80s and ’90s… there was not a clear understanding as to what the different parts of the weather community should be doing,” he said, explaining public and private forecasters were competing to produce the same information to the same demographics. “After we realized the need for establishing swim lanes — what the academic community would focus on, what private industry would focus on and what the government would not be focused on — that concept has been embraced by the American Meteorological Society.”

Despite some turbulence, Porter said the weather community’s current relationship is healthy and strong.

“There’s a tremendous amount of passion in the weather community to make a positive difference,” he said. “Few other fields have had as much success from a predictive capability as meteorology has had in terms of leveraging the science to improve society.”

UW students, NCAR Supercomputing Center help improve forecasts in Asia, Africa, South America

in News/weather
Wyoming NCAR Supercomputer
Courtesy: ©UCAR; photo by Carlye Calvin

By Laura Hancock, Cowboy State Daily

In the United States, Japan and a handful of western European countries, people can access state-of-the-art weather forecasts that are updated once an hour. 

That’s not the case with the rest of the world. Most people only get weather forecasts with such sophistication once every six or 12 hours.

But a team of undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Wyoming, led by Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Suresh Muknahallipatna, is working to change that. 

In 2017, IBM contracted with the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center in Cheyenne with a project to help improve weather forecasting around the globe. NCAR then hired the UW team, Muknahallipatna said. 

The key to generating forecasts quickly lies with supercomputers with specialized electronic circuits called graphic processing units. GPUs are capable of better graphic resolution and can update at a greater frequency, according to IBM.

Traditionally, most weather forecasting originates on supercomputers built only with central processing units, Muknahallipatna said.

So the job of the UW team, Muknahallipatna said, is to take code from the supercomputers that only have CPUs and “refactor” it for supercomputers that contain graphic processing units. Refactoring essentially requires restructuring the computer code. 

“By running this on the graphic processing unit we can finish the computations in less than an hour, so you can have a forecast every hour,” he said. 

IMB said in a statement that while there are some computers that have the ability to do fast, high-resolution forecasts for a region, what makes the work it’s doing with NCAR and UW unique is that it’s the first global weather computer model to run on a graphics processing unit with “high-performance computing architecture.”

“This is the first time a full global model exists to provide forecasts for the day ahead at this scale, resolution and frequency,” according to an IBM statement. 

The forecasting gaps the UW is helping to fill include areas among those most vulnerable to increasingly extreme weather resulting from climate change, the company said, specifically pointing to Asia, Africa and South America.

And more frequently updated weather forecasts can make all the difference to people who live off the land. 

“The enhanced forecasts could be revolutionary for some areas of the world, such as for a rural farmer in India or Kenya,” Cameron Clayton, head of IMB subsidiary The Weather Company, said in a prepared statement. “If you’ve never before had access to high-resolution weather data but could now anticipate thunderstorms before they approach your fields, you can better plan for planting or harvesting.” 

The work is providing UW students experience that has led to internships and job offers, Muknahallipatna said.  

“All of them having been doing refactoring code,” he said. “It’s very a special skill set, not all students have this skill.”

Refactoring requires the students to understand code, or software, but also a machine’s hardware. 

“That is why electrical engineering and computer engineering are suited for high-performance computation coding,” he said. “You need to know both software and hardware.”

Day, Old Farmer’s Almanac agree — it’s going to be a cold winter

in News/weather

By Cowboy State Daily

The Old Farmer’s Almanac and one of Wyoming’s premier weather forecasters are both predicting the same thing for eastern Wyoming this winter — cold.

The 228-year-old Farmer’s Almanac, which claims an accuracy rate in long-range forecasting of up to 85 percent, is predicting a “polar coaster” in terms of winter temperatures, with the mercury dipping far below average east of the Rockies, from the Continental Divide to the Appalachians. Day agrees.

“Places like Sheridan, Buffalo, Gillette, Lusk, Torrington, they’re probably going to be the coldest parts of Wyoming this winter,” he said. “You get over to Jackson, Rock Springs and Evanston on the other side of the Divide and it’s likely going to be a more mild winter there.”

Day said typically, cold air coming down from Canada is heavy and drops to the lowest point in the landscape, which is the eastern slope of the Rockies.

“Sometimes, in patterns like we’re expecting this winter, the Rockies will keep that really cold air, most of the time, from going over to places like Jackson and Star Valley and Evanston,” he said.

As far as snow, Day said heavier snow than normal can be expected for the first half of the winter, from mid-October through January, particularly in eastern and northeastern Wyoming.

Weather forecasting can be a tricky business. The Old Farmer’s Almanac bases its predictions on a centuries-old secret formula created by its founder. The publication estimates its success rate at 80 percent to 85 percent. The University of Illinois, in a study, set the figure at closer to 52 percent.

Day said he bases his predictions on a combination of computer modeling and looking at past patterns of weather, while the National Weather Services uses only computers and does not look at past trends.

“What we have found is that the formula of mixing those two seems too give you the most accurate weather forecast,” he said. “The Farmer’s Alamanac is coming out at about 52 percent. You know what the (computer) model is at? About the same.”

Day admitted that a little experience in weather forecasting doesn’t hurt, either.

“Weather forecasting is a lot like being a pilot,” he said. “You go and get on an airplane and the captain greets you when you get on board. You like to see a captain with a little what in his hair? A little gray, right? You don’t want a fresh-faced 18-year-old flying a 747, right?

Fall colors depend on spring rains, first frost

in News/weather

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

It’s that time of year again. The pumpkin spice is flowing, the birds are flying south, and according to social media, the leaves are turning.

But for most Wyomingites, fall colors only appear for a few days before the world turns dead and gray. 

In southeast Wyoming, it can feel like it takes longer to rake all the brown leaves than it did for them to die and fall to the ground. In northwest Wyoming, however, residents report fall looks more like the story books with yellows and reds dotting the landscape for weeks at a time.

“The intensity of the colors depends on three different things: Sunlight, temperature and moisture,” said Katie Cheesbrough, a Wyoming Game and Fish Department habitat biologist. “But frost is your major color killer.”

Working primarily in the Saratoga region, Cheesbrough said she couldn’t say for sure why northwest Wyoming experienced brilliant fall colors longer than other parts of the state, but it could be related to wind.

“I think the secret in Jackson is they just have less wind,” she said. “Down here, the wind tends to blow the leaves off the trees before they’ve had a chance to fully turn.”

Most leaves are green in the spring and summer because of the chemical chlorophyll, which is essential to the photosynthesis process, allowing trees to absorb energy from light.

As the weather changes, “The green pigment breaks down rather quickly,” Cheesbrough said. 

Without chlorophyll, red and yellow pigments, which are present throughout the year, come to the fore.

Yellow pigments are caused by carotenoid and red pigments are the product of anthocyanin, Cheesbrough explained.

“You’re going to see the best, most intense colors if you have a moist growing season early on, drier periods in the late summer and warm, sunny days in the fall with cool nights that don’t drop below freezing,” she said. 

Tree species also play a role in leaf color.

“Maples will have red leaves and aspens are primarily yellow, but do have some red,” Cheesbrough explained.

Leaf colors are genetic traits passed down through generations of trees, which is why an aspen copse tends to be monotoned, she said. But, occasionally, a person might see a bright red aspen floating in a sea of yellow.

“Most people think aspens only reproduce through cloning,” Cheesbrough said, explaining cloning is the process of a single tree growing new stems upward from a single root system. “But they also reproduce through seeds. When you see a lone aspen with different color leaves among others, you’re seeing a different tree’s genes at work.”

Deciduous trees shed their leaves while conifers, like pines and firs, retain their needles.

“They’re completely different organisms with completely different strategies,” Cheesbrough said. “Like some animals migrate to avoid winter and others hibernate, (deciduous trees) basically ditch these energetically expensive parts of themselves. Meanwhile, conifers still need their needles to photosynthesize, but in winter, they go into a dormant state to prevent them losing water through their needles.”

U.S. Forest Service spokesman Aaron Voos said it is common to see leaves in an area change colors at different times.

“We do see a really wide variety of when leaves change throughout Medicine Bow National Forest, and how leaves change color,” Voos said. “This year, a lot of our trees turned much later than normal.”

One of the scientific theories Voos said is predominant in arborist circles is leaves turn based on the length of available daylight, rather than specific weather patterns. No matter the science, he said the early bird gets the worm.

“The best bit of advice I’ve ever got is, ‘When they’re turning, go see them,’” Voos said. “They may not be around that long.”

Is long-range weather forecasting more than a tabloid gimmick?

in weather
Long range forecast

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Anyone who’s waited five minutes in a supermarket checkout lane can attest to the rows of weird publications waiting on the sales racks. From half-horse, half-human babies to the latest Hollywood gossip, the periodicals scream, “Read me.” 

In the same vein, hiding among the intimacy tips and health crazes, are the farmers’ almanacs. Pocket-sized, printed in black and white and typically with a hole punched in the corner, presumably to facilitate dangling the book from a peg board between the rusty sickle and chipped screwdrivers, these magazines are packed with astronomy charts, gardening advice, and most notably, long-range weather forecasts.

The most well known of these are probably the Farmers’ Almanac and Old Farmers Almanac, but there are others. The random facts are fun, and it’s a valuable tool for those wondering the position of the stars on a set date, but is the weather accurate?

Dayweather, Inc., Meteorologist Don Day Jr. said at times, the almanacs are more accurate than computer-generated predictions.     

“I think, some years, they outperform some of the long-range computer models,” Day said. “But the tricky thing is they say they have a secret formula, so not knowing what they use to predict things makes it hard to create a fair comparison.”

Down the divide

The Old Farmer’s Almanac 2020 calls for a colder winter than average in eastern Wyoming, while the west side of the state could experience a milder winter.On the other hand, the National Weather Service Climate Forecast System (CFS) is calling for above-average temperatures across the country and into Alaska.

“When Alaska is colder than normal, the lower 48 are warmer than normal, which always trips people up,” Day explained. “So, this (CFS) model contradicts itself.”

Meteorologists take three approaches to long-range forecasting: Using historical data to create an analog forecast, relying on the CFS modeling to generate predictions or mixing the two sources together.

“What I think the (Old) Farmers Almanac does is all analog,” Day said. “Personally, I use a mix of both. I’ve been burned in previous years by relying solely on analog or computer modeling, so I don’t trust one more than the other.”

Another problem with the current CFS forecast is the Continental Divide, which splits Wyoming in two. Whereas the almanacs provide weather predictions based on regions — Wyoming is located in both the High Plains region and Intermountain region — a CFS model produced earlier this week colors the entire nation in hues of red, yellow and orange, indicating warmer than average temperatures regardless of geography.

“It’s really hard to paint a broad brush for Wyoming,” Day said. “The Continental Divide does tend to guide where the air goes.”

Low-to-the-ground arctic blasts don’t always cross over the mountains, which he explained creates different winter conditions for people living on either side of the divide.

While the Old Farmers Almanac predictions for this year are in line with Day’s, he said almanac forecasts tend to derail when they try to pinpoint the time and location of a weather event.

“One of the challenges is how precise (the almanacs) try to get,” Day said. “You’ll read something about a blizzard near Kansas City, Kansas, between Jan. 27 and Feb. 17, but in my opinion, it’s a wild-ass guess.”

Down by the sea

Using sea-surface temperatures, Day said meteorologists are learning more about how to compare prior years with similar oceanic data and weather patterns to current conditions.

“A lot of weather forecasting is pattern recognition,” he explained. “Being able to recognize past patterns and what caused them has made better forecasting for the future.”

The almanacs also track ocean activity in a section most likely overlooked by many Wyomingites, the tide table.

But, Day said the publications keep their prediction practices under wraps, so it’s not possible to speculate whether their sources are using a similar process.

Accurate or not, the almanacs inspire thoughtful weather conversations. 

“The … almanac is fun — it gets people talking,” Day said. “And it heightens their sense of thinking forward.”

As long-range weather forecasting improves, it could become a valuable tool for private businesses across the world.

“I think we’re getting to the point where people in business can really use this data,” Day said. “A snowblower company could stock more snowblowers in regions expecting colder winters. There’s a lot of money to be made or lost as long-range forecasting gets more accurate.”

Meteorology is a ways off from providing consistent, spot-on, 180-day forecasts, but between analog forecasts, computer modeling and sources like farmers’ almanacs, Day said he looks forward to seeing what future holds.

Firefighters catch a break in Shoshone National Forest’s Fishhawk blaze

in News/weather

In Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest, the Fishhawk Fire has burned more than 11,000 acres near Cody.

The Fishhawk Fire grew from 500 to more than 10,000 acres in just three days and is billowing smoke from the mountains across Park County.

Favorable conditions slowed the growth of the blaze over the weekend and gave firefighters an opportunity to establish protective firelines that starve the fire of fuel and direct flames away from structures.

Evacuations of mountain cabins and Camp Buffalo Bill Boy Scout camp were lifted Saturday as crews and fire managers from multiple agencies contained the burn.

Fire managers expect that the fire will smolder until snow blankets the mountains of the Shoshone National Forest.

Climate Change? Faulty Sensors, Less Rigorous Standards Could Be Skewing Data

in News/weather

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Few would disagree the West is getting warmer, but how much warmer is a matter for debate and temperature sensors play a key role in the discussion, according to Cheyenne meteorologist Don Day.

Automatic Surface Observation Systems (ASOS) started replacing human weather observers in the U.S. around the 1980s and by the 1990s, they made their way to Wyoming.

“In the last 20 to 30 years, the process of observing and recording weather has gone to these automated systems,” Day explained. “The sensors usually set out at the end of the (airport) runway or somewhere close in order to get the information that is going to be most critical for aviation.”

Jared Allen, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said an array of people and businesses use weather data, but the aviation industry is a major player in the market.

“The majority of your National Weather Service offices across the country are co-located at airports,” said Allen, who serves as a liaison between the weather service’s Weather Forecast Office and the public. “And about 99 percent of the time, (the ASOS sensors) are going to be at airports.”

The weather service collects data from 15 ASOS sensors across Wyoming, and all but one are at airports, he added.

While data collected by sensors at airports is adequate for pilots and their instruments, Day said it falls short of creating a full picture of climate change.

A recent article in the Washington Post, provides a map, which highlights Cheyenne as a center of extreme climate change. A big, red blob covers the southeastern portion of the state indicating temperatures rose about 2 degrees Celsius from 1835 to 2018.

The weather did get warmer, Day said, but what the map does not take into account is the ASOS recording some of those changes is located in the center of a growing urban area at an airport surrounded by miles of concrete and tarmac. Additionally, the sensor is recording weather data for aviation, not climatology.

“If you’re piloting a (Boeing) 747, you don’t care if it’s 49 degrees or 50 degrees — you want to know what the visibility and the wind are doing,” Day explained. “But if you’re trying to track climate and are going to argue over a one-tenth degree temperature change, it is a big deal.”

Prior to the proliferation of ASOS sensors, Day said weather data collection was subject to rigorous standards and protocols.

“The temperature sensor off the ground had to be a standard height,” he said. “The shelters that housed the weather instruments had to be painted white, had to be certain dimensions and had to have a certain amount of airflow.”

The list of requirements goes on. Nowadays, Day said those standards have fallen by the wayside.

One extreme example of how far the standards have dropped was reported by the New York Times in 1991. An early-stage electronic thermometer consistently recorded temperatures at about 2 degrees Fahrenheit higher than actual, creating a new all-time high for Tucson, Arizona. The faulty readings became part of the official climate record and still stand today on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website.

“What has happened with the automation process — it’s not nefarious,” Day said. “As technology was developed and airports started getting away from having to pay somebody to make the observations by installing these systems, that international standard really got washed away.”

Allen agreed some deviations exist.

“There certainly can be some slight discrepancies,” he said. “There can be an urban heat island affect. If you have an ASOS that is directly inside the city, surrounded by houses, concrete or asphalt, that might read, temperature-wise, a touch warmer.”

But Allen said the weather service still uses standards for installing the sensors.

The placement, typically in the middle of an airfield or nearby the runway, is tested to ensure jet exhaust won’t affect temperature readings and trees won’t distort precipitation gauges.

“There should be a half-mile radius of nothing around the ASOS, so the tarmac temperatures don’t fully influence the temperature readings,” he explained.

Previously, temperature readings were recorded in the shade and at a specific height, Day said. But that’s not always the case with ASOS sensors, which can skew previously recorded temperatures to appear cooler than current temperatures. 

“You are putting a temperature sensor in an environment that deviates from well-known and established standards,” he said. “Right off the bat, that’s not rigorous scientific protocol.”

To compensate for the discrepancies, Day said climatologists use varying formulas, depending on what they are extrapolating from the data. 

“There is a lot of statistical analysis and equations put on the data to try to ‘account for the deficiencies of temperature measuring,’” he explained. “It makes it very ripe for people to take the data and make it whatever they want it to be.”

The climate change debate often hinges on temperature variances of less than 1 degree, many of which are determined after being processed through corrective equations, Day said. 

“Very hard political decisions are being made around the world based on what people think is happening,” he said. “People need to tread very lightly and have an understanding of the sausage-making process. Everyone loves a hot dog, but no one wants to know how it’s made.”

Parched: 102-year-old irrigation canal collapse threatens livelihood of 800 farm and ranch families

in Agriculture/News/weather

Over 100,000 acres of farm and ranch land in eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska have been without irrigation water for more than two weeks after an 102-year-old irrigation canal collapsed.

For the roughly 800 farm and ranch families whose operations straddle the Wyoming-Nebraska state line, the situation is dire and the clock is ticking.

“It was the worst timing in the world,” Goshen County Irrigation District manager Rob Posten said. “17th of July when it’s 90 degrees everyday and not much rain. Couldn’t have been any worse timing.”

“It’s my worst nightmare,” Posten added.

Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon and Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts have both signed emergency declarations allowing the use of state resources to get the old canal repaired and running water.

“I have been in crop insurance for 20 years, and I have never seen anything like this.”

CSD: Crop insurance might not cover irrigation canal collapse losses (July 29, 2019)

The massive canal, constructed during World War I, runs 85 miles through Wyoming and another 45 miles in Nebraska.

“If there was a hundred year warranty it ran out last year,” said Shawn Madden with Torrington Livestock Auction.

There is hope to salvage at least part of the year’s crop yield as Wyoming meteorologist Don Day predicts some rain may be on the way for eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska. The bad news, Day warns, is that late August in Wyoming tends to be bone dry.

For the livelihood of 800 families, the window to get the canal operational is small and getting smaller.

However, Cactus Covello of Points West Bank said the farming families of the region will find a way through the crisis.

“Agricultural people in Nebraska and Wyoming, they’re the most resilient you’re going to come by,” he said. “They’re tough. They’ll find a way. We may lose some, but you won’t lose many. They’ll find a way to survive.”

40 Years Later: Tornado Rips Through Cheyenne, Wyoming

in Community/weather

On July 16, 1979, Cheyenne was hit by the largest tornado (F3) to ever hit the state of Wyoming.

The tornado was responsible for one death, dozens of injuries, and damage to hundreds of homes. 

Don Erickson was Cheyenne’s mayor and he recalls what happened that day 40 years later.

Five Questions With… Meteorologist Don Day

in weather

Wyoming meteorologist Don Day accurately predicted our cold, snowy spring and late-starting summer. Is this the first time a meteorologist got everything right? Can he do it again for the next 90 days? Is he a modern-day Nostradamus? If so, let’s bet on the Super Bowl while the odds are good.

Introducing “Five Minutes With” — where we ask five random questions to our favorite Wyomingites. By the way, his prediction for our summer weather is fantastic (no comment on his Super Bowl pick).

You can check out Don’s DayWeather podcast every weekday at 7AM.

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