As rain pelted the San Joaquin Valley yet again in a notably wet winter, two meteorologists, a meteorology tech and the science and operations officer were on duty Friday at the National Weather Service office in Hanford.
They scanned computer screens showing Doppler radar images, keeping an eye out for high winds, heavy rain or weather that could put people’s lives in danger.
Meteorologist Dan Harty, forecaster for the shift, uses three main computer screens to observe current weather and make the forecasts and issue warnings and advisories.
“We’ve got the atmospheric river – very high moisture content – coming in over California at this time,” he said.
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He took special note of one part of the Coast Range.
We’ve got the atmospheric river – very high moisture content – coming in over California at this time.
Dan Harty, meteorologist
“I’m watching the rainfall rate in the Temblor Range that’s coming over from the coast,” he said. “That’s our big concern for the next couple of hours.”
It appeared that the storm would smack the Grapevine and Frazier Park area, which turned out to be right.
About 9:30 a.m., he issued a flood warning for the lower San Joaquin River around Stevenson in Merced County, after consulting the weather service’s California Nevada River Forecast Center in Sacramento.
“Public safety is really important to us,” science and operations officer Kris Mattarochia said.
Computer programs take current weather information and make a forecast automatically – the newest programs can predict what the weather will be in the next 15 hours – but the meteorologists fine-tune them, Mattarochia said.
“We can improve it with our local knowledge,” he said. “It’s a human-machine mix.”
Meteorologist technician Bill Peterson posted the flood warning on the Hanford weather service’s Facebook page.
Soon, someone posted a comment in Spanish, which translated to “that’s where the flooding normally happens.”
We’re pinpointing where the storms are going next.
Kevin Lynott, meteorologist-in-charge
Communicating with the public is a big part of the job.
“We do a lot of one-on-one,” Peterson said. “We try to reply within a matter of minutes.”
The Facebook page has 38,354 “likes.” He said when they post a photo of a beautiful day in Yosemite, for instance, the photo might get 20,000 likes.
They also post weather updates via Twitter.
About 2:45 p.m., the office issued a flash-flood warning for south-central Kern County, which includes Frazier Park. A couple of hours before that, a meteorologist issued a flash-flood warning for the Pine Mountain Club area of Kern County.
“This has been quite the different scene than we’ve had in the past few years,” Mattarochia said.
The Hanford office is a Weather Forecast Office, one of 122 in the country. It’s easy to spot from a distance because of the large white ball that houses the Doppler radar. For all the fancy computers and programs that make modern weather forecasting what it is, the radar is the heart of the operation.
“It’s always moving,” said meteorologist-in-charge Kevin Lynott, who transferred to Hanford from Wyoming about a year and half ago and lives in Visalia, where he keeps his own weather monitoring gear in the backyard.
The Doppler radar scans the skies in all directions for 250 nautical miles. (A nautical mile is 6,076 feet, whereas a land mile is 5,280 feet.)
“It detects energy of snow, rain or hail,” he said. “Every few minutes we get images from the radar. We get an idea what’s out there. All that data is put into a neat picture.
“We can see where the storms are moving,” he said. “We’re pinpointing where the storms are going next.”
The Hanford office is on aptly named Foggy Bottom Road. “On really foggy days, this is one of the last places it dissipates,” Lynott said.
The weather service, under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, opened the Hanford office 22 years ago and chose the middle-of-the-Valley location as part of the plan to space 150 Doppler radar around the country.
The Hanford facility employs about 23 people, mostly meteorologists. It’s always open.
Although it is the meteorologists who issue the weather forecasts, Lynott said the three electronics and computer experts who keep the computer room going are vital to the operation because “we can’t do this work without them.”