POWER USER

Whither a weather forecast with weight?

John McCormick

You wouldn't think I'd have trouble finding weather information.

There's weather info to be found everywhere, from outside my own window to the local TV news and the newspaper. There's even a cable channel devoted to the weather.

Nevertheless, I am always in search of better weather information, both for my own ranch activities and as part of my government duties as the local emergency management coordinator.

If all you care about are the chances of rain next weekend, you can skip this column. But if, like me, you need to know exactly when a thunderstorm will hit or to prepare for a big snowfall, read on.

I ignore the local TV weather people'they spend half their time telling us what just happened weatherwise. It's hard to take them seriously with so much happy banter.

Then there was the memorable day when National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather radio and the Weather Channel both reported a tornado about 35 miles south of my township. I followed its progress on radar as it headed almost due east away from me. I was not surprised to see a local TV reporter break in to regular programming 15 minutes later'well after the storm head had dissipated.

The Weather Channel, which I get on a C-band satellite, is relatively good but often seems to be running some endless feature when I need a storm update. During the day when regular programming is in effect, the radar image is often and obviously outdated. What's more, the Weather Channel radar loops don't include time references.

The NOAA radio warnings are nearly useless where I live in Pennsylvania, although it isn't NOAA's fault. The nearest station is so far away and covers so much territory that the alarm seems to sound every few minutes during storm season. I don't need to be roused from sleep every 10 minutes just to learn that a strong storm front is passing 60 miles away, so I just turn the alarm off.

What I really need is current radar images so I can see just what's going on. That means the Internet, but even online timeliness varies greatly.

I used to rely on www.intellicast.com, which shows Doppler radar, radar loops and satellite imagery, but the maps take a long time to load at dial-up speeds. Besides, a radar image covering six states just isn't accurate enough. Also, the images are often 30 minutes old'again not much use when tracking dangerous storms.

I still carry Intellicast links on my local Web site because it provides other useful information, but I've added www.weatherunderground.com, which, despite the name, isn't exclusively for coal miners or part of a subversive cult.

The site's Doppler radar images from Pittsburgh and State College, Pa.'I'm equidistant from them'load quickly and one is always less than five minutes old.

For historical data and climatologic forecasts, I turn to government sites. I use www.usda.gov, particularly the National Agricultural Statistics Service, for soil moisture reports. It's useful for farmers and anyone concerned with brush fires.

I find Palmer Drought Index maps, cumulative rainfall and climatologic forecasts on the NOAA Climate Prediction Center site, at www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov. Not everything on the site is terribly useful. For example, the top item under Latest Publications on one page is still the Climate Assessment for 1999.

Why do I use so many weather resources? Because they often disagree. For instance, by Aug. 1 we were suffering drought conditions. Some springs had dried up and the ponds were several feet below average.

This was accurately reflected in soil moisture maps at www.usda.gov/nass/graphics/soilmap.gif and the Agriculture Department's drought monitor map, at enso.unl.edu/monitor/monitor.html. The NOAA Palmer Drought Index data also showed that we needed four to six inches of rain to make up the deficit.

But the map at www.dep.state.pa.us/dep/subject/hotopics/drought/drou_map.htm showed normal conditions for the state.

If you want e-mail notification of important weather-related events, visit Vienna, Va., Emergency E-mail Network, at www.emergencyemailnetwork.com, where you can sign up to get natural disaster warnings for any locality.

I don't put much faith in weather forecasters. Local conditions vary too much, so I have my own weather station to track rainfall and watch radar for real-time storm information. I guess that's appropriate, since I live in the self-proclaimed Weather Capital of the World, Punxsutawney, Pa.

John McCormick is a free-lance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at poweruser@mail.usa.com.

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