Recent storms highlight weather station reporting woes

By Megan Gannon
After four days without flights, Nomeites stranded at the Anchorage airport are starting to wonder if the Iditarod mushers will beat them back home. The delays have been a good reminder that our lives are ruled by the weather.
And yet, it’s not always easy to get good reports about the conditions in the Bering Strait region. At each airstrip in the region, the National Weather Service and the Federal Aviation Administration have surface weather observation stations that are intended to monitor conditions like temperatures and wind speeds. But experts like UAF’s Rick Thoman have been telling the Nugget that these stations are not consistently recording information from the villages, largely due to telecommunications outages. For example, Thoman said, as of Monday at noon, the following FAA stations were not reporting reliably for the preceding 24 hours: Gambell, Savoonga, Wales, Teller, Brevig Mission, Shishmaref, White Mountain, Golovin, Koyuk, St. Michael and Emmonak. NWS weather stations not reliably reporting were Deering, Kivalina and Kotzebue.  
An FAA spokesperson said that the agency’s weather data is available in three ways: via internet, dial-up and radio broadcast. The availability of those reports depends on the reliability of telecommunications systems, such as a local internet provider. In the Bering Strait region, telecommunications systems are not always reliable.
“For most of the reported outages, FAA weather equipment is working, but one or more of the three ways we send data is out of service,” the FAA spokesperson said.
The FAA said that ex-typhoon Merbok and recent winter storms have created additional difficulties in the weather observation systems. But these issues have been longstanding.
“We all know about the problems that plague rural Alaska telecommunications,” Thoman said. “But Gambell has been offline most of the time since October 2021 and Emmonak since before the COVID-19 pandemic. And if you can pick up the phone and call the recording and hear the current observation, then at some level the telecommunications is working. Is it actually beyond the bounds of modern technology to use that working connection to get the observations online?” He added that, in effect, if the FAA weather station data is not online, then it is lost forever.
The situation affects travel in the region. Without weather data, flights are typically restricted to operate under “visual flight rules,” or VFR, the FAA said. Under those rules, pilots are supposed to only fly in clear, good weather; they can’t risk flying in low visibility, heavy precipitation and other inclement conditions. The FAA said that aircraft operators are responsible for determining if conditions support VFR operations.
A Bering Air representative confirmed that their operations are “very” affected by the lack of data and have been for a long time.
“We have to have certified weather before we can go to the villages or go anywhere,” the representative said. The rep added that they make the FAA aware of these problems “every day.”
So what would it take to get those stations reliably recording and reporting conditions again? The FAA was vague in its answer. The agency said it would need access to weather reporting sites. “We are making every effort to maintain and repair facilities as soon as possible,” the spokesperson said. The Bering Air rep said that the obstacles they often hear listed from the FAA are supply chain issues, a lack of parts and the travel required to reach these stations. Such problems might not be unique to the Bering Strait region, but maybe unique to Alaska when compared to the rest of the country.
“I’m sure if Chicago had a weather reporting problem, they’d have it fixed in short order,” the Bering Air rep said.
The sporadic nature of weather data recording also presents a challenge for forecasters who want to verify their predictions.
Ryan Metzger, who is a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fairbanks, said that his office is still able to issue forecasts and warnings using satellite and radar data.
“Forecasting for Alaska in general is a challenge,” Metzger said. “If you’re forecasting in the Lower 48 you can see [weather systems] coming with observations readily available as they’re coming across the country. What we use the surface weather stations for is to verify things once the storm is ongoing.”
If dedicated weather stations are not reliable, people like Metzger have to get creative. He said they can turn to other data sources, such as seismic sensors that also have weather-observing features that the state of Alaska operates primarily to detect earthquakes. The National Parks Service and the Bureau of Land Management also have weather stations in remote parts of the state that are used for detecting fires, Metzger said. He also turns to webcams that are on the ground to determine visibility. Private citizens, too, share data with the NWS through the Citizen Weather Observing Program, or CWOP. Metzger said there are several citizens with personal weather stations in Nome, but fewer in the villages.
“As meteorologists we always like more data,” Metzger said. “In general, we’ll take any observations we can get.”
Beyond air travel safety, Thoman said, access to regular weather data and observations is important for other public safety reasons. Decisions to travel to work or embark on subsistence activities are informed by weather data. It also is a crucial tool to monitor environmental change. “Alaska climate and environment is changing so rapidly that it is imperative that individuals and organizations be able to quantify what’s been observed,” he said.


The Nome Nugget

PO Box 610
Nome, Alaska 99762

Phone: (907) 443-5235
Fax: (907) 443-5112

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