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Forecasters Hail New Weather Computers Electronics Will Minimize Unpleasant Surprises

Last July 9, Spokane’s National Weather Service staff learned again it still hasn’t mastered the art of knowing which way the wind will blow.

A sudden, fast-moving thunderstorm rolled into the region from the coast and slammed into the Spokane area in the late afternoon.

Before long, the storm tore down power lines in Eastern Washington and North Idaho and produced golfball-sized hailstones that damaged homes, cars and hundreds of farmers’ fields.

When staffers at Spokane’s Weather Service office realized the storm was treacherous, they could offer residents no more than five minutes’ advance warning.

Two months later, having moved into a new building this week, the 16-person Weather Service staff thinks it now has better tools and a faster response time for future emergencies.

“We’d like to think we can get to the point where we’d have 20 to 30 minutes (advance warning),” said Spokane Weather Service Meteorologist in charge John Livingston.

“We certainly think we can do better than we have with the new equipment we have now,” he said.

The first, million-dollar phase of that improvement is moving out of the old airport site into a new and spacious building near Airway Heights.

Inside that building, Livingston and his staff now are using much faster computers that can track far more data than earlier generations of equipment.

The next phase will be the addition in November of a $2 million Doppler radar system that will mark a major step forward in area meteorology, Livingston predicted.

The entire upgrade will move Spokane’s Weather Service into the the next era of high-tech weather forecasting, said University of Washington atmospheric science professor Clifford Mass.

For the past 20 years, Spokane’s daily Weather Service routine has been the twice-a-day launching of weather balloons and responding to data and forecasts coming from the Seattle and Boise offices.

In the next few years, the National Weather Service will transfer full forecast responsibility for the Eastern Washington-North Idaho area to Spokane’s office.

The added cost of beefing up Spokane’s office will be covered by closing smaller weather stations in cities like Yakima, Helena, Lewiston and Kalispell.

Livingston and Mass are both sure that the new radar and more sophisticated equipment are worth the investment.

“Computers are coming into use that can handle vast amounts of details we couldn’t manage before. The result will be a tremendous improvement in weather tracking,” Mass said.

Mass and Livingston argue that weather forecasting has made major strides in the past few years, and that the added technology will help them do even better.

Instead of rough images of cloud patterns, Spokane’s Weather Service now has highly detailed views from satellites that are updated constantly, said Livingston.

They also have color-coded displays of temperature variations in clouds, offering far more detail than previous generations of computer equipment could provide.

When the Doppler radar system is operating, it will add spatial, three-dimensional views of moving weather fronts, compared to the limited, flat images now available at the Weather Service office.

The net effect will be a faster and more precise way of keeping track of the weather, Livingston said.

“We may not identify every storm coming our way, but our intent is to always spot the big ones, the winter weather and the severe storms that affect people’s lives in this area.

“It’s an inexact science and we intend to do our best with the information we have.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo