As howling storm battered Alaska, ham operators provided vital link

Jill Burke from the Alaska Dispatch — The jet stream feeding the wintery sea-spun tempest that sideswiped Alaska’s western coast wasn’t the only worldwide conveyer belt in motion this week. As howling winds whipped up and crashing waves pounded beaches, the people who live in the remote, isolated villages along the storm’s path stayed connected via a web of global radio frequencies.

When other communications failed, ham radio operators came to the rescue. Throughout the storm, they were the eyes for scientists in Fairbanks and Anchorage who otherwise would have been blind to weather conditions they could predict but not see.

“They were providing critical observations. We don’t have a lot of meteorological observations in the west. We don’t have the instruments out there,” Carven Scott, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Anchorage, said Thursday as messages sent via the amateur radio network zapped into his inbox.

The messages were deceptively simple: how fast the wind was blowing and from what direction; sea level; wave height; whether it was snowing or raining; and the temperature. These seemingly small details from various villages made a big difference for the weather service — enough so, Scott said, that a lead forecaster told him, “Whatever you do, don’t cut it off because this stuff is really helping us.”

Through the ham radio network, Scott and his colleagues learned that river ice in Koyuk was backing up and spilling onto the banks, roofs had blown off in Nome, water was surging in Nome, and rain and snow were falling in Shaktoolik and Savoonga.

Scott describes weather prediction as a 10,000 piece puzzle with 9,000 pieces missing. Remote sensing tools, radar and satellites all help, but conceptual models are only as good as the limited information forecasters have. First-hand reports from people on the ground feed the model with real information in real-time, allowing forecasters to adjust and refine their analysis. If snow was predicted but it’s actually raining, meteorologists tweak their formulas.

“Those seemingly unimportant pieces of information help us characterize where the front is at,” he said. “Without that information, it would impact our ability to execute our mission, which is the protection of life and property and enhancement of national commerce.”

Continue the story here at the Alaska Dispatch site