National Weather Service seeks volunteer to collect snow data for Nome
National Weather Service offices in rural Alaska, including Nome, Kotzebue, Bethel, McGrath, Cold By, Kodiak and Yakutat, are no longer officially measuring snow depth or snow fall as part of their daily data collection chores, according to the National Weather Service regional office in Anchorage. While snowfall and the depth of accumulated snow has been part of the national dataset for 112 years in Nome, the NWS is now trying to recruit volunteers to perform the task.
Mike Couch, Chief of the Data Acquisition Branch at the NWS Alaska Regional Headquarters, explained to the Nome Nugget that forecast offices, including the Nome Weather Service Office, are no longer required to collect snow data as the office staff has been reduced to one person. That one person is Bob TenEyck. Weather Service Office staffing around the state has been reduced from seven days a week, 24-hours a day staffing to a Monday through Friday, 40-hour work week. According to Couch, the snow depth measurements have to be collected daily at midnight and since staff is no longer available to take those measurements at the midnight hour and on weekends, there goes the data collection for snow depth and snow fall.
Having been hammered with the first proper blizzard with a good amount of snow just on Monday this week, Nome Weather Service office will not have an official record of how much snow actually fell and what the current snow depth is. However, Bob Ten Eyck told the Nugget he will continue to measure snow and snow depth but it is not collected to add to the 112 years worth of data of snow and snow depth.
For years, Nome and other rural NWS offices were staffed 24/7, but decisions were made in Washington D.C. to rationalize rural offices and replace employees with automated data collecting devices. One major task of the offices is to twice a day send a weather balloon equipped with radiosondes aloft. This happens simultaneously across the country and here in Nome, Alaska, it occurs at 3 a.m. and at 3 p.m. In 2016 the Weather Service decided to utilize so-called Autosonde devices to automate the release of these weather balloons. All a NWS staffer now needs to do is load the machine with radiosondes and balloons and then the machine releases the balloons at the proper time, if all works as planned.
In August of this year, Nome’s NWS office received its Autosonde device. “On August 8 was the last time a human launched a balloon,” said Ten Eyck. Since then the machine has taken over the launch task. And since then the midnight snow data collection has not been happening, which in summer does not really matter, but now that winter is here, this data is not collected.
Autosonde launchers are also in place in Anchorage and Fairbanks, but in contrast to rural offices, their staff still collect snow data.
TenEyck said the Nome office collects weather data, including rain, with a so-called ASOS, short for automated surface observing system. “The instrument for liquid precipitation is very accurate,” TenEyck said. Snow is harder to measure than rain because it drifts and accumulates unevenly on surfaces, especially in windy coastal towns. It requires a person to collect snow depth and snow fall.
Couch said that the Weather Service is looking for volunteers, or cooperative observers, for their offices in Nome, Bethel and Kotzebue who would commit to daily collect snow data. They found a volunteer in Barrow. Couch said that no qualifications are needed and that the Weather Service would supply the proper equipment and train the volunteers on how to make the measurements. The volunteer would collect the data at 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. every day, 365 days a year, and that data then would be entered into NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, NCEI for short. According to its website, the NCEI is responsible for preserving, monitoring, assessing and providing public access to the Nation’s treasure of climate and historical weather data and information.
Couch said that currently, there is a volunteer network of about 150 volunteers in Alaska, who collect data daily for the Weather Service.
When asked about the ramifications of the disruption in snow fall and snow depth measurements, Climate Specialist Rick Thoman with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment at UAF said that there are multiple concerns. “One there are budgetary reasons,” he said. For example, if the City of Nome wants to pursue funding for snow removal from other entities, they would have to back up their request with official data on how much snow actually fell. Without that official record, Thoman said, “they would have to say ‘I don’t know how much snow fell.’”
The continuity of snow data is also important as northwest Alaska sees drastic changes in climate-change driven weather. “The snow cover season is changing dramatically,” Thoman said. This means, he explains, that the duration of snow on the ground is changing, and that influences the growing season and the amount of water going into the water supply due to snowmelt. If no data is collected, we won’t know if a particular snow fall broke a record and lack of actual snowfall and snow depth are leaving a gap in the long history of record keeping.