For Better Storm Warnings, NWS Goes Local

Predicting storms in a fast-changing environment isn’t easy. But the National Weather Service is slowly working on a plan to improve their forecasts in Alaska — and across the country — by adding in the view from the ground.

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Since he moved to Unalaska 12 years ago, Dale Miller has weathered a lot of storms. But nothing like the one he calls the doozy.

Miller: “I had a new Colorado out in the front yard that I watched go on two wheels. That leaned over, and it slid about four inches.”

The morning after a major storm passed over Unalaska, mechanic Dale Miller stopped into CarQuest auto supply. (Lauren Rosenthal/KUCB)
The morning after a major storm passed over Unalaska, mechanic Dale Miller stopped into CarQuest auto supply. (Lauren Rosenthal/KUCB)

That’s exactly what Miller wanted to avoid when the tail end of a super typhoon swept into the Bering Sea this month. He’s a mechanic with a lot of spare materials and cars laying around.

Miller: “Kind of wanted to park things in a way where maybe the glass isn’t going to get broken. But I didn’t know which direction the wind was going to be coming from if it did hit.”

That information was available in a string of alerts from the National Weather Service. But even though they’re meant for the public, meteorologist Dave Snider says they’re not always user-friendly.

Snider: “Warning and advisory and watch: Are those types of words helpful to you, or are they confusing?”

Those questions are at the heart of the Weather-Ready Nation project. Over the last three years, Snider and other forecasters have tried to get the country better prepared for storms.

That includes putting out effective storm warnings. And research has shown that most people don’t understand the different terms that the National Weather Service has relied on.

If there’s an exception, it might be coastal Alaska. Commercial fishermen and recreational boaters rely on forecasts to navigate, so they learn to speak the language.

But weather is a critical part of life on land, too. In Unalaska, Snider says the terrain is full of hills and valleys that can channel wind into strong, localized gusts.

Snider: “If the wind’s blowing one direction and it happens to make it down the canyon and into town just right, well, that might hit a container. Or if it’s blowing a different way, it might hit a crane.”

That’s exactly what happened five years ago. The same storm that picked up Dale Miller’s truck also knocked down a cargo crane at Unalaska’s port.

It’s a pretty extreme example. But weather can affect port operations on a smaller scale, like when shipping companies try to figure out when it’s safe to offload cargo.

Snider visited Unalaska last week to see how weather drives those decisions on the ground.

Snider: “Those kinds of things are really important. Any time there’s damage, even from a little bit of weather, we’d like to know about it. So we know how this particular weather situation impacted your daily life.”

That’s where a new crop of Weather-Ready Nation ambassadors comes in. Snider is helping recruit volunteers who can explain how their communities respond to storms.

Eventually, it could lead to a new kind of forecast — one that clearly lays out how traffic or shipping might be affected by the day’s weather, in language that’s easy to understand.

For Dale Miller, that can’t come soon enough. The mechanic tried to windproof his property in Unalaska — but the big storm he was expecting this month mostly blew out to sea.

Miller: “So, it’s all good. I just think that there’s one coming for us out there. And that’s the one that’s gonna ruin our day pretty good.”

Whatever the form, it won’t come without a warning.

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