- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Whether it is used as an icebreaker in conversation or as the subject of serious inquiry, “the weather” is one of the few subjects that everyone talks about. And though we recognize the faces that bring us the weather on television, how government meteorologists and forecasters go about their jobs is rarely scrutinized. Given recent weather-related disasters, it’s time we find out more. In Authors of the Storm, Gary Alan Fine offers an inside look at how meteorologists and forecasters predict the weather.
Based on field observation and interviews at the Storm Prediction Center in Oklahoma, the National Weather Service in Washington, D.C., and a handful of midwestern outlets, Fine finds a supremely hard-working, insular clique of professionals who often refer to themselves as a “band of brothers.” In Fine’s skilled hands, we learn their lingo, how they “read” weather conditions, how forecasts are written, and, of course, how those messages are conveyed to the public. Weather forecasts, he shows, are often shaped as much by social and cultural factors inside local offices as they are by approaching cumulus clouds. By opening up this unique world to us, Authors of the Storm offers a valuable and fascinating glimpse of a crucial profession.
— Mott Greene
— Robert Henson
— Mott Greene
A sticky Chicago afternoon in August can feel like Hell.
When I had last visited, the weather was cool and calm, edging toward autumn. As it was still summer, several workers who normally worked K shifts were on vacation. K shifts are day shifts in which forecasters work on their other responsibilities-updating the webpage, fixing minor computer glitches, compiling data for record-keeping, or planting flowers. A quiet lassitude defined the day, and the work seemed easy. Only two forecasters were on duty, one preparing the public forecast, and the other the Aviation forecast for O'Hare and smaller airports in the Chicago-Rockford area. They were supported by a meteorological technician overseeing the weather radio and compiling reports from a network of observers. The forecast was for more pleasant, mild summer weather, consistent with previous predictions that severe weather was unlikely. Forecasters distributed reports on schedule. The computer models fit the newly received data. Staff could glance at the newspaper, check favorite websites, sip coffee, and chat about family. The work done by three people could have been completed by one. The office was overstaffed. The administrators-the Meteorologist-in-Charge, the Science and Operations Officer, and the Warning Coordination Meteorologist-remained in their offices working on projects or completing paperwork.
Today the scene is dramatically different. Same office, different emotions. While no certainty exists as to what will develop, signs pointed to a day with "a lot of weather." As I describe below, a weather service office is an activated organization, often operating tranquilly but capable, like an emergency room, of becoming transformed into a hub of activity.
The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, had issued a forecast that showed Chicago and most of its County Warning Area (23 counties) under a "moderate" risk for severe weather. Of the three categories of risk-slight, moderate, and high-moderate means that severe weather in the area is likely. The SPC rarely issues a high threat assessment, no more than a few times each year, and only when they believe that major severe weather is almost certain.
The Chicago office plans for severe weather to arrive in the late afternoon or early evening. Predicting whether tornadoes might hit is hard, but there are almost certain to be thunderstorms-boomers-probably with at least 3/4-inch hail and/or 58 mph winds, the criteria for severe weather. The atmosphere is highly unstable, the moisture level is elevated, a possibility of circular winds exists, and Kansas and Missouri had experienced severe weather late last night. The ingredients are present for weather!
If tornadoes or severe thunderstorm are about to emerge (or have just done so), forecasters must issue warnings. These warnings are for counties, and typically are within a larger area for which the Storm Prediction Center had previously issued a watch. The local office must determine that danger or threat from these storms is immanent before issuing a warning. Several warnings may be issued for the same storm as it travels through the forecast area. Severe weather can appear suddenly. This doesn't mean that storms are unpredictable or that weather systems appear "out of thin air," but the extent and intensity of storms may be unexpected.
The threat is such that the staff held a planning meeting in the late morning, discussing staffing and office responsibilities. The MIC informs the day shift that they will likely stay late, and a few forecasters who are not scheduled to work are called to alert them that they might be needed. The office is not sufficiently staffed for all of the extra work that the few days of severe weather bring, and staffing adjustments are necessary, as in hospital emergency rooms after a disaster.
Although George, the Meteorologist-in-Charge, is formally in charge of the office, Don, a lead forecaster with twenty years experience, runs the meeting, assisted by Byron, the science officer. Don and Byron describe the responsibilities of each staff member, including the administrators, the HMTs (the hydrometeorological technicians), and the forecasters. Don divides the warning area, permitting one forecaster to focus on storms entering the western part of the region, and another to concentrate on those in the southern and eastern counties. Storms typically travel from the southwest, and the airflow suggests that this will happen today. One staff member is assigned to gather storm information from ham radio operators, another is placed in charge of updating "now-casts" and warnings, a third answers the phone, and a fourth updates the weather radio. The office is fortunate that a college meteorology student is working as a summer intern. He calls police and emergency workers in counties in which warnings had been or were about to be issued to learn what was happening, gaining a measure of what meteorologists refer to as "ground truth."
As a gesture of solidarity, George orders pizza, giving the day a festive quality. Since storms typically form in the late afternoon heat, in early afternoon there is little to do, except reminisce about past storms and desultorily monitor radar scans, satellite images, and data from upper-air balloons released near Springfield, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa. The severe weather remains outside Chicago's County Warning Area. Don phones the Storm Prediction Center to gain their insight. He also calls forecasters in offices to their south and west, particularly colleagues in Lincoln, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa. These offices are spin-up offices, opened in the mid-1990s, and Chicago staffers believe that they overforecast severe weather, but today all the offices agree. Marty, the public forecaster, distributes his seven-day forecast early to insure that this routine assignment will not interfere with his responsibilities for the incoming severe weather.
By 3:15 storms have entered the forecast area. Until they cross the border, the bad weather is not Chicago's problem. As an organizational matter, the thunderstorms do not exist until they near the county boundary, a political marker. These storms are strong, but the forecasters do not feel that they have reached the criteria for issuing a severe weather warning.
As storms move, tension, coupled with eager excitement, increases noticeably. These men care about the weather and severe weather tests their abilities. If a storm system is powerful, forecasters may become agitated, angry, or astonished, depending on their ability to cope. As the heat of the afternoon builds, some storm cells increase in intensity. Vic, the forecaster in charge of the western area, worries about a storm cell southeast of Rockford. Don and Vic examine the radar images and decide to wait one more radar cycle (about five minutes) to see if the storm has intensified. With that new image, Don jokes, ostensibly making light of this important decision, "What the Hell! Let's do it," and they send out a warning for McHenry County, covering Chicago's northwest suburbs. Because of media demands and because of the organizational structure of emergency and police units, warnings are linked to county units. Science bows to political organization, just as when flu risk or unemployment data are presented on a state-by-state basis. Through the computer network, the police, fire departments, emergency workers, and media instantly receive the warning, also available through weather radio and on the office webpage. Richie, the college intern, phones police in the county to inquire about weather conditions, and, in the process, verifies the warning. The staff wouldn't be happy to learn that severe weather hit before the warning-that would have meant that they had missed the storm. Even a minute or two can make a difference between getting it right or missing it, affecting the office's success rate, a matter of concern for headquarters.
During the afternoon and evening storms pop up throughout the metropolitan region, popcorn storms as they are called. A funnel cloud is spotted on the beach off Afton, leading to discussion of whether it was a tornado or a waterspout, a matter of a few hundred feet, depending on whether it hit the beach or the waves. Since the office had predicted a tornado for Lake County, and since the person who called it in thought it might have hit the beach, they label it a tornado, grateful that they could claim that it hit land. Radar images themselves don't determine whether a tornado has touched down until forecasters receive a call or investigate it themselves.
The major event of the evening-the emotional centerpiece-is a tornado that hits two counties of rural Indiana, located within their warning area. The forecasters gather around the radar screen, gazing respectfully at a "hook echo," a classic indication of a tornado, because of its indication of strong circular wind rotation. They are impressed by the beauty of the colorful image on the radar, even while realizing the destruction it may cause. Although the Afton tornado is an F0, the lowest level storm, and apparently does no substantial damage, the Merrillville tornado hits a barn and destroys trees and roofs, possibly an F2 but more probably a strong F1 (on the scale from F0 to F5), a destructive tornado. In a storm this powerful, unlucky citizens may die, but not tonight. The next day, Patrick, the Warning Coordination Meteorologist, visits the area to assess the damage.
By early evening, heavy storms have moved from Chicago's responsibility; they have become the problem of the North Webster, Indiana, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, offices. The storms continue, but life in Chicago is easy. The extra workers leave by 9:00 p.m., some on duty for over twelve hours. Reports are prepared, calls are made, and there is nothing to do but wait until tomorrow, when storms may reignite, or not.
Working the Weather
The 2002 Jobs Rated Almanac rated meteorologist the seventh best job in the United States. The Almanac examined stress, physical demands, job security, salary, and work environment. Sharing the top ten is financial planner; cowboys made the bottom ten-so much for preadolescent dreams. We live in a world of clean hands and indoor work, characteristics of contemporary meteorology.
In this chapter I explore the social contours of the meteorological life. My goal is not to be descriptive, although the description that I present may help those outside of the field gain a sense for the work. I wish to situate the occupation within its organizational and social psychological constraints. As in my study of restaurant kitchens, I argue that the structure, culture, and interactions of operational meteorologists create the conditions in which weather forecasts are produced. In this case, it is the relationship of meteorology to science, to claims about the future, and to the communication of this knowledge that are at issue. I begin with the place and space in which meteorology is done, moving inward to work relations, the links between humans and machines, and labor under conditions of stress and threat.
Although meteorologists work for numerous organizations-universities, energy companies, utilities, airlines, consulting firms, and television stations-I focus on government employees, the authors of official weather information and keepers of the equipment that produces this information. As noted, the National Weather Service maintains 122 local offices throughout the United States to forecast for regions of a size that can be covered by the latest generation of radar equipment, about 60 miles in radius. Many National Weather Service offices were newly built or refurbished in the 1990s and are pleasant, if interchangeable. The offices I observed are modest low-slung one-story buildings, unrecognizable by their facade, but by the large radar dish behind the building. Many are located on the west or southwest outskirts of the major city in the forecast area under the assumption that weather moves from west to east in temperate zones. This location provides the radar the ability to detect incoming weather before it hits the metropolitan area. The Chicago office is situated in a distant suburb, some thirty miles southwest of the Loop. This location may subtly diminish the recognition that they are forecasting for an urban area, increasing the difficulty for them to feel the effects of their work on its end users. One MIC explicitly said that he did not want his staff to consider the impact of a warning, believing that warnings should be meteorological, not social. Being in the middle of nowhere contributes to downplaying social impact and emphasizes that nature has autonomy.
The buildings are constructed with an eye toward severe weather; each has a small tornado room in the center of the structure in the rare event of a direct hit. The offices maintain a backup electrical generator, switched on when severe weather threatens. As a result, forecasting can continue even if the weather is dangerous. The structure of the building is linked to assumptions of the structure of weather and affects meteorological thinking. The architecture and location focus attention on severe weather. As in many workplaces, the tasks of workers are made concrete in the design and placement of their spaces.
A casual visitor would not realize that the building is other than an office. There had once been a suggestion-a seemingly odd one-that the buildings should not have windows, preventing the weather from distracting the meteorologists from their technical assessments based on readouts from machines. This suggestion was shared with me several times, intended to indicate the foolishness of government bureaucrats. The plan was never implemented, but these claims were expressed to justify the authenticity of lived experience over mechanical readings. On this occasion observational experience triumphed over technological assessments. Forecasters treasure their windows and assert that they help in forecasting. One explained, "I thought it was nice that my laboratory was right outside the door." Another said, "They wanted us to use the equipment [instead of viewing the sky]. That's our backup-to look out the window" (Field notes). They are "in the field" at the same time as they are examining machines. Windows are valued at moments of severe weather; when skies are clear, they are irrelevant, and forecasters may pull the shades to enable them to see their monitors better.
The building is divided into a large central area and a set of small offices or cubicles, a kitchen, and a conference room. The ten forecasters lack private offices, sharing their workspace. This structure suggests a critical difference between public science and academic science. There is no place of retreat; the individual worker is not treated as an autonomous creator of knowledge but as an organizational cog, part of a corporate enterprise with only the local culture to provide some measure of autonomy. As David Livingstone points out, science work is channeled by its locations. The structure of weather service offices emphasizes that these workers are producing collective products, not linked to personal perspectives, leaving only the writing of the forecast as a matter on which a forecaster can place his stamp (discussed in chap. 4). The idiosyncratic flavor of scientific creation is wrung out of these government forecasters.
Excerpted from Authors of the Storm by Gary Alan Fine Copyright © 2007 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
1 On the Floor
2 A Cult of “Science”
4 Writing on the Winds
5 Ground Truth
6 A Public Science
7 Weather Wise