BY LORAINE ANDERSON
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Weather and weather talk aren’t what they used to be. Neither is forecasting.
Hurricanes, superstorms, tornados and blizzards are more accurate than ever because of new and faster weather computers, area meteorologists said.
And talk about the weather appears to be on the rise, too, thanks to Facebook, Twitter and smart phones.
“Climate change” is a phrase many TV meteorologists avoid because it has become as controversial as “global warming.” However, melting glaciers, Hurricane Sandy and other extreme weather in recent years also may have something to do with online chatter and tweets.
“It’s one of those topics that’s hard to feel lukewarm about, “ said Justin Arnott, a meteorologist at the Gaylord National Weather Service office, which tracks the weather in 25 counties in northern Michigan, including two in the eastern Upper Peninsula.
Not many years ago, massive weather maps and forecast data adorned National Weather Service office walls across the nation, Arnott said. Now weather data is digitized and fed quickly into computer model programs that help meteorologists forecast brewing storms and wild weather earlier and with more detail. Computers that once took up entire rooms fit on desktops today.
These days, TV and radio meteorologists devote part of their work day to Facebook posts and tweets about forecasts, temperatures, wind chills and snowfall accumulations.
Katie Dupree, a meteorologist at TV 9&10 in Cadillac since 2011, started her meteorologist Facebook page after viewers sent friend requests to her personal page. She posted only weather updates at first, then occasionally added a few non-weather posts. This week, that meant a recipe for northern Michigan-style pasties she made on her day off.
“People like it when you post random stuff,” she said. “They see you on TV and feel like they know you. And it’s a great way to get storm reports early. I just put out a shout and ask for people to get back to me. I get a lot of feedback on the weather.”
Her Facebook weather friends use an old-fashioned method to determine snowfall depths: the common yardstick.
Like many meteorologists, Dupree has followed weather — especially thunderstorms — since childhood. Arnott credits his interest to Hurricane Gloria during a trip along the East Coast in 1985, when he was 6 years old.
“It left a big impression,” he said. “It wasn’t terrible, but the power went out and I saw uprooted trees for the first time. After that I followed the weather dramas and maps following storms.”
Modern weather forecasting stems from three technological developments: instant communications with distant areas beginning in the late 1800s, remote sensitivity devices starting in the early 1900s and computers in the latter 1900s. For all the fancy technology, weather balloons still are important working horses of meteorological forecasting.
Weather stations across the nation and around the world at the same time twice daily release hundreds of hydrogen-filled weather balloons equipped with sensitive weather monitoring devices on flights into the earth’s stratosphere, the second atmospheric layer before outer space.
On the way up, balloons collect data on winds, temperatures and humidity in the upper atmosphere and transmit it back to fixed receivers on the ground to feed into worldwide weather computers. That helps forecasters like Arnott and TV meteorologists predict clouds, rains and major storm systems.
The balloons eventually burst in the thin air of near space and the small transmitter plummets back to Earth, its flight slowed by a tiny parachute.
Michigan is a good place for meteorologists who like challenges. TV stations in Traverse City and Cadillac cover a big chunk of the state, from Mount Pleasant in the south to Sault Ste. Marie, Newberry and Paradise in the north.
“Michigan is probably one of the hardest to forecast because of all its lakes and water,” Dupree said.
Lake-effect snows and cloud cover, as well as land elevations, contribute to big differences in snowfall levels across the state.
“The hardest- hit areas are off toward Kalkaska, Otsego and Antrim counties,” said Tom O’Hare, chief meteorologist for TV 9 &10 and Fox 32. “Lower numbers are near Lake Michigan and Mount Pleasant.”
Winter, even when deep, stormy and cold, doesn’t make for a busier day at the office, said Mark Watkins, TV 7&4 chief meteorologist.
Almost all meteorologists work with the same data and have to process and put together the same number of graphics and information for time segments ranging from 10 seconds to three minutes, no matter whether its sunshine or stormy, he said.
Meteorologists need three main instruments to do a good job — radar, satellite pictures and computer models, he said.
“The computer model is absolutely required and not just for presentation with graphics,” he said. “In the past 20 years, computer models have helped us become remarkably correct.”
Forecasts come from computers, he added. What meteorologists do is interpret the data for viewers.
For him, “telling the story” behind the weather is what make the difference in weather reports.
“I enjoy explaining things,” he said. “That’s the personal thing, which people like.”