By Casey Grove
January 23, 2011
Two dozen manned weather sites across Alaska are getting a closer look by the National Weather Service, and aviators are worried about losing what they say is vital weather data for flying around or over dangerous terrain.
Correctly gauging the height of clouds in a mountain pass, for example, often means the difference between life and death in the cockpit. Observations from certified contractors in remote areas can provide that type of information. But there are difficulties that come with that, and the National Weather Service is questioning whether there might be a better way.
The weather service forecasters use observations from contracted, private citizens to aid them in predicting weather across Alaska. While the observations are helpful, they might not be crucial to the weather service’s overall mission, and the service is re-evaluating its use of the contracted sites, according to Angel Corona, chief of the service’s data acquisition branch, which oversees the contracts.
“For our means, we could say, ‘Well, we don’t need those anymore for our needs, so they’re going to go away,’ but obviously we’re affecting other people,” Corona said.
The discussion arose from reports that two of the sites — both of which help pilots navigate frequently traveled mountain passes — had either stopped reporting or planned to stop.
One station at Big River Lakes stopped sending observations in mid-December. Another at Hayes River is set to stop at the end of January.
The two stations gave pilots a good idea of what the weather was doing on the east side of Lake Clark, Merrill and Rainy passes, three mountain passes west of Anchorage, according to the Alaska Airmen’s Association.
Many pilots are concerned about those closures and the possibility of more to come, Airmen’s Association President Adam White said.
“(That’s) a big impact on aviation and the safety of making that decision on whether a person should fly or not fly, and sometimes the only way to know that, now, is to get up and stick your nose in it, which is not the best option,” White said.
MANNED WEATHER OUTPOSTS
Neither station closed as part of the weather service’s re-evaluation, Corona said.
At Big River Lakes, a certified observer was no longer in the area.
At Hayes River, the contract was expiring without another observer to take over, he said.
Discussions are ongoing with the Federal Aviation Administration and Alaska pilots about how to get reliable, accurate weather information, Corona said.
Still, the closure of both stations underscores why it’s hard to get reliable weather observations from people in remote parts of Alaska.
The observers have to be certified to make sure their observations are accurate, Corona said. People are scarce in rural Alaska, by definition. So it can be difficult to find anyone willing to take on the task of making painstaking records of the weather there, on top of whatever else they’re doing to support themselves, Corona said.
“We recognize the problem, but I guess other people have to recognize that we have certain criteria that have to be met, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said, adding that the FAA sets the rules by which the weather service and its contractors must abide.
There are also hundreds of FAA weather cameras and dozens of unmanned weather stations in Alaska that provide data, Corona said. The weather service is working with the FAA to see if any changes will be mitigated by those other data sources, he said.
White, with the Airmen’s Association, is aware of the problems of maintaining this weather-gathering network.
“Unfortunately, some of those sites, from time to time, go down,” White said. They’re hard to get to, and if the technology fails, the cameras may be inoperable for extended periods of time, he said.
“We’re getting better with some of that weather data, but we’re taking a step in the wrong direction when we start losing weather sources,” White said. “It is not the right idea to just go out not knowing what the weather’s like, hoping you can make it. That’s a recipe for disaster, and we know what the accident season has been like here in Alaska lately.”
FAA WANTS RELIABILITY
Corona said there have been no plans so far by the weather service to stop contracting with the other 22 manned weather sites, some of which have been around since the 1970s, he said.
There also may be a misconception in the aviation community that the service is cutting sites to save money, Corona said.
“We don’t know what our alternatives are going to be,” Corona said. “To say that we’re going to save money — I don’t know that we’re going to save any money.”
Money is always going to enter into a discussion of how an agency uses its funds to provide the most efficient, reliable service it can, Corona said in a later interview. But saving money is not the main focus of the National Weather Service’s evaluation of the sites, he said.
All sides seem to agree that it’s a good idea to take a look at the myriad sources pilots use to paint a comprehensive picture of Alaska’s weather. What that picture will look like in the future is yet to be determined.