Weather You’re Right or Weather You’re Wrong

It’s a Friday afternoon in June, and the weather for the weekend looks iffy. That’s about to drive Gary Calvino nuts. “I’m going crazy,” he says, because it’s his job as development director to decide whether WaterFire is on or off. “I’m on the Internet checking Weather Underground, Weather-dot-com, AccuWeather, almost on an hourly basis. We try to look at them all and get a consensus, but it seems like you never can really get a consensus. I was on the phone with [Channel 10 meteorologist] Gary Ley, asking what’s going to happen, but unfortunately he’s in the same boat we are.”

The rain is out there to the west, but will it veer to the north and brush on by, or will it dissipate and fade before it gets here, or will it march right in and pour? There’s just no way to know on Friday afternoon if it will rain at Waterplace at sunset Saturday. “We put off making the call as long as we can,” Calvino says. Vendors, musicians, tourists, bridal parties, restaurateurs, hordes of volunteers wait, their plans in limbo. Eventually the call must be made. Noon the day of the event is decision hour.

“The only guarantee to have it not rain,” sighs Calvino, “is if we cancel.”

What is it about Rhode Island weather that makes it so unpredictable? Is the weather here truly peculiar, or is it just that the people who live here obsess about it?

“Well, we get some of everything,” says Channel 12 meteorologist Tony Petrarca. “We have the four seasons. We’re not only surrounded by the ocean; the bay brings the ocean right up into the heart of the state. The mountains to the north and west affect our weather systems. It’s very challenging to predict what will happen here.”

If you follow the curve of the Earth from the Equator, where it’s always hot and dripping wet, to the cold and arid North Pole, Rhode Island sits halfway between the two. Summer brings long days with the sun beating down from high in the sky; the planet spins on its orbit to winter, and days are short with the cool sun close to the horizon. We’re right on the edge of a huge continent to the west and a vast ocean to the east. The Gulf Stream pushes a current of warm water up from the south, creating a pathway for tropical storms to bump into our south coast. Westerly winds drag in frontal systems from the Great Lakes and the Arctic.

So, our obsession is not unwarranted. Rhode Island is a weather stew. Sleet, hail, hurricanes, blizzards, puffy clouds, downpours, ice, lightning, fog, tree-cracking squalls, low scuddy gray overcasts and deep infinite blue skies, all are ours. No wonder we need teams of meteorologists to keep track of it all.

Those teams cost the local TV stations millions of dollars. Forecasters are stars of the news shows, getting equal billing with the anchors, more screen time than sports. The stations create dueling weather enhancements, enticing viewers with Doppler radar, weather-watcher networks, online updates, neighborhood net-cams, zooming 3D graphics.

Tony Petrarca is one of the veterans, with nineteen years behind him at WPRI. He arrives at the studio mid-afternoon to prep for the p.m. newscasts. He consults dozens of online sources — satellite images, bits of weather data, trends and models and projections — as well as information from the station’s radar. He ducks out of the studio to peer into the sky, feeling how damp it is, how thick the clouds, how strong or variable the wind and from what direction. Meanwhile, he mulls over how he will tell that day’s weather story in the allotted three minutes and thirty seconds. It’s an intense, neverending job. He says he’s given up coffee, but you’d never know it.

The trickiest forecast, no question, is winter weather. “You can get snow in Foster, sleet in Cranston, rain in Newport, all at the same time,” he says. “The rain-snow line is crucial, and it runs right through the state.” The so-called fluff factor is shifty. The same half-inch of precipitation can be four inches or twenty inches of snow. And people in Newport don’t care what happens in Foster. They want “hyper-local” information, Petrarca says. What’s going to happen in their neighborhood and on their schedule? Will it be raining at 10 a.m. at their kids’ soccer field? Will school be canceled? What if you run a restaurant?

Will everyone stay home on a Saturday night? “To a business owner, it can mean thousands of dollars,” says Petrarca. “For a working parent, it can disrupt your day, your routine, your comfort. So, everybody wants to know what the weather is going to do.”

Most days it works, it all makes sense; the weather gods cooperate and the short-term forecast is right on target, or pretty close. Other times, the tiniest change, a dawdling low, a rambunctious frost, can throw it all off.

“We call it a bust,” says Petrarca. It’s the weatherman’s bête noire — when the forecast is not just a little off, but dead wrong. “People get a nice day they weren’t expecting, that’s a bonus, they’re more forgiving. But bad weather, when you said it wouldn’t happen…that, they hold against you.”

He remembers one day last winter, when he predicted the rain would move offshore well before cold, dry air blew in from the west. But the rain didn’t leave on schedule, the cold air bumped into all that moisture, snow fell. Months later, Petrarca grimaces at the very thought of it. People made plans; they were out driving, running errands, and suddenly, unpredicted snow — a bust!

Why does this still happen, despite all the technology and expertise and effort? It’s become a common complaint of the modern era; we can land men on the moon, but we still can’t predict tomorrow’s weather? That foresight eludes us, and it rankles.

Most of us turn to the local TV, or the newspaper, or the Internet, for our weather fix, counting on scads of meteorologists to tell us what will happen next. All those forecasters depend on the National Weather Service to get the data they need to do their job.

The Weather Service office in Taunton, Massachusetts, keeps track of weather for all of Rhode Island, plus most of Massachusetts and parts of Connecticut and New Hampshire. Eleanor Talbot is one of ten meteorologists on the staff. “Our number one job is the protection of life and property,” she says. “Second is forecasting. We forecast out to seven days, five days for marine forecasts. Twenty years ago, it was five days and three days.”

They can do better today because they have so much information pouring in. Talbot’s work station, set among a maze of government-issue gray cubicles, is dominated by three wide computer screens. They display data from a multitude of sources, from local radar and wind instruments to the latest satellite images.

One of those satellites sits at 22,000 miles above the equator, at 75 degrees west longitude, roughly above Peru. It travels around the Earth at the same speed that the planet rotates, so it always hovers above the same point on the surface. From there, it can look down on the U.S. and send back pictures of clouds and hurricanes, as well as images that show temperature differences and water vapor.

“Then at 500 miles high are two polar orbiters,” says Talbot. “They get the high-resolution shots.” Each orbiter passes above Rhode Island twice a day, so that’s four close looks at the tops of the clouds.

For some tasks, though, low-tech ways are still the best. Twice every day from Chatham on Cape Cod, a staffer inflates a nine-foot-tall weather balloon with helium and lets it go. The balloon carries a lunchbox-sized instrument that collects details about pressure, temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction and radios the data back to Earth. The balloon climbs for about an hour and a half into the empty sky, reaching 100,000 feet or so before it bursts. The instrument falls back to Earth beneath a tiny parachute, usually splashing into the ocean.

“Since satellites can’t see below the clouds, we still need the weather balloons to find out more about what’s going on at different levels in the atmosphere,” Talbot says. From those details, meteorologists can construct maps that show ridges and troughs, highs and lows, pressure, winds and moisture.

On the surface, a network of gear collects yet more data.

Outside the Weather Service building, a tall tower holds aloft a giant white ball that houses the Doppler radar. The radar dish sends out signals that reach south to Westerly and north to New Hampshire, then waits for them to bounce off something and return. Regular radar can detect raindrops, hail and snow, but Doppler can also tell wind speed and direction.

The six state airports have weather stations on site. Buoys in Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island Sound collect data about currents and temperatures. Hundreds of trained volunteer weather watchers across the state send calls or emails recording what time a thunderstorm passed, how big the hailstones were, how deep the snow is in their backyards. It all gets plugged into the Weather Service database.

But all that computer power can’t quite replace the human brain. Talbot still prints out raw weather maps and draws her own analysis by hand, figuring where the lines of pressure go, where the highs and lows are located. “The computer can misread things sometimes,” she says. “Especially when we’re looking at very local-level storms.”

One person who really needs to know what the weather is going to do is Jeff Sponberg, who pilots a single-engine Cessna Caravan cargo airplane. He frequently flies the airplane from Providence to Nantucket and back. Flying at just 3,000 to 4,000 feet, he’s often above the cloud layer. Every workday, he loads the Caravan with freight, checks the fuel, calculates the weight and balance, but mostly what he does is fret about the weather.

“You have to be vigilant,” he says. “Weather is the number one factor that determines safety.” He spends hours each day getting forecasts from both private and government sources. He checks automated traffic information services, which highlight field conditions, wind directions and visibility. Sometimes he’ll call the control tower at Nantucket to ask for on-the-spot observations. He carries onboard radar gear that shows in real time where the thunderstorms are, so he can give them a wide berth.

What worries him most is fog. “Nantucket is just a little piece of land in the midst of a great big ocean,” he says. “It’s like a huge moisture pump out there.” Days when wide blue skies stretch above T.F. Green Airport, it can still be foggy when he gets to the island. If visibility over the runway falls below the minimum rules for safe landings, he has to turn around and come back. Which is why, for the thirty-minute flight, he likes to carry no less than three hours of fuel.

“You should always have a Plan B…and a Plan C and Plan D. You don’t ever want to run out of options up there,” he says.

He keeps close track of the temperature-dew point spread. If the air is cooled to the dew-point temperature, condensation will form. When the temperature and dew point are very close, the likelihood of fog is extremely high. If Sponberg can’t zip in and out and beat the fog, he’ll likely be spending the night stranded on the island.
“You have to know your limitations,” says Sponberg. “I’m very respectful of the weather. If it’s not safe, then I don’t go.”

For most of us, though, the weather call is not such a life-or-death event. John Ghiorse, as you might guess from his on-screen demeanor, is pretty low-key about the forecast. “All most people really want to know,” he says, “is if it’s going to be a nice day tomorrow or not.” Too much detail just gets in the way. Thus was born the famous Ghiorse Factor zero-to-ten index, right up there with Del’s lemonade and coffee milk as a Rhode Island icon. “It really started out for people in the construction trades, people who have to work outdoors,” he says. “That was back in the ’70s. It’s not a scientific number; it’s my own evaluation. It’s subjective.”

When Ghiorse came to Rhode Island back in 1968, hiring meteorologists as on-screen talent was a new concept. “I was working in Connecticut, and I heard about an opening in Providence. I walked into Sherm Strickhouser’s office at WJAR…and I wasn’t what they were looking for. They wanted a pretty boy, with a pronounceable name. I had to convince them that I could provide them with a better forecast than what they were getting from the Weather Bureau, and this would give them a leg up on the other stations.” He talked his way onto the show, and nearly forty years later, he’s still at it. “Things worked out,” he says.

Now every prime-time weather forecaster on the air in Rhode Island has a meteorology degree. They take all the Weather Service data, combine it with their local knowledge plus input from their own weather watchers, instruments and weather-cams, and finesse the forecast. Where’s that rain-snow line going to be? That’s the real challenge. “It’s very tough to do,” says Ghiorse.

Rhode Islanders’ obsession with weather is not unusual, he says. In the Southwest, where the weather is generally stable, it gets less attention. But in the Midwest, they worry about tornadoes. In Florida, it’s hurricanes. In most places, people have plenty of reason to pay attention to what’s going on in the atmosphere, says Ghiorse.

He does have some theories of his own though about Rhode Islanders’ quirks, based on his four decades of observation. The bread-and-milk winter-storm panic is left over from the Blizzard of ’78, he says, and seems to be fading a bit from the collective psyche. Another factor is that the state’s population tends to be older and used to staying close to home. Since driving from the West Bay to the East Bay for dinner, for example, is viewed by many as an extreme adventure, toss in a prediction of rain or snow, and it’s time to settle in for the night.

On a breezy June day in Newport, a lazy lunchtime crowd straggles across the rolling green lawn at Castle Hill. They sprawl on the grass, stretch out in Adirondack chairs, sip champagne and gaze out at the bay, where a dozen tall-masted sailboats jockey for position at the starting line of the Newport-to-Bermuda race. Sailing skills alone won’t determine who wins this race. Insight into what the weather will do is crucial.
Earlier that morning, about 400 captains, navigators and crew from those yachts crowded into the meeting room of a Newport hotel. Each team paid $385 to attend this weather briefing, with a customized analysis of the winds and currents. They took notes, they asked questions, they left with hand-drawn charts showing what weather to expect along the route for the next six days.

Even with all that effort going into a specific route, nothing is ever certain. Dan Dyer, navigator of Kodiak II and veteran of many races, says the big high-pressure system that sat over the route was expected to move away sooner than it did. “The wind just quit,” he says. But sailors now have lots of resources besides that prerace briefing. “We can go online from the boat and get weather updates,” Dyer says.

The computer is not the only source, though. “We watch for clouds to see where the fronts are,” Dyer says. “And we live by the barometer.” Sailors watch this simple instrument invented in 1643 to tell if they are in an area of high or low pressure, and which way it’s trending. “Racers looking for heavy winds want to find a low, or even better, a place where a low and a high are bumping up against each other. That’s where you’ll get some fast wind.”

In the end, WaterFire was cancelled. It rained off and on all that Saturday. It was the third washout of the season. “That’s just the way it is,” Calvino says. “We’re dependent on Mother Nature.”

So will we ever get the upper hand on weather? Even if we never learn to control it, will our predictions at least get more accurate, or is it just inherently unpredictable?

Tony Petrarca says our observation tools and our understanding of physics continue to improve, so that will lead to better forecasts. “But it’s a vast ocean of air out there,” he says. “We’ll never to be able to really track it all.”

John Ghiorse believes that as computer capacity grows, researchers will accumulate more and more data and refine their predictive models. “I can tell you this,” he says. “Today, we put a lot of effort into improving our forecasts for three, four, five days out. Twenty years ago, the challenge was tomorrow and the next day.” Accuracy will slowly improve, but it will never be perfect.

“But would you really want that?” he asks. Do you really want to know what tomorrow will bring? Or don’t you like to be surprised now and then?” He chuckles, and gets back to work.

Weather watch

Here’s where you can find your own weather data on the web:

National Weather Service

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Susan Genett’s Daily Bay forecast