National Weather Service seeks a social scientist to staff Nome office
By Megan Gannon
The National Weather Service offices in rural Alaska have been stripped of many of their previous functions as the agency has downsized its presence. Staff once released weather balloons and measured wind speed and rain manually; but they’ve been replaced by automated systems.
Snowfall and snow depth observations can only be performed by humans still, but the weather service has outsourced that work to volunteers.
Once staffed 24/7, the NWS office at the airport in Nome had been down to just one remaining meteorological technician for the last several years. He retired a month ago. The NWS has posted a job opening to fill his spot—though not with another meteorologist. Instead, the weather service now seeks two social scientists to work in Nome and Utqiagvik. The new hires will maintain some observational equipment, but the primary function of their job will be outreach. Their goal is to support people who rely on weather forecasts that are written by meteorologists who are 500 miles away at an office in Fairbanks and may have never set foot in Nome and Utqiagvik.
“The overall purpose is to help us have a better understanding of the needs of the communities and have a better way to interact with the community so that we can provide services that are more relevant and useful to not just Nome, but the Norton Sound region and the Bering Strait region,” said Don Moore, director of the Alaska Environmental Science and Service Integration Center, which is hiring the position. “We’ll also do the same kind of thing up on the North Slope.”
In May 2018, as the NWS was preparing to cut its rural Alaska staff by about two-thirds, the agency held a public forum in Nome to try to better understand how people used forecasts here. People complained about the discrepancies between the forecasts they received and the reality outside their windows. Residents said they received weather alerts about storms that were already underway for hours. Gold miners operating dredges at sea said they didn’t have specific enough information about swell sizes, which could be a life-or-death matter. That situation doesn’t seem to have gotten better in the four years since that meeting.
Lucas Stotts, who’s been the Port of Nome’s harbormaster for the last 11 years, says he didn’t know how crucial it would be to become an amateur weatherman in his job. He remembers a time when there were at least three people on staff in the NWS office here who were deeply familiar with local weather patterns. Stotts says he would often call those staffers with questions or they would call him to give their take, warning him, for example, when commercial ships might want to prepare for heavier seas after leaving port than the official forecast would indicate. But now Stotts says he has not relied on local forecasting in last three to four years because he’s just used it not being available anymore.
“The National Weather Service does have programs available to do spot forecasting,” Stotts says. “You can go online on a map and draw a little box that gives you a rough forecast of that area. But we have so little forecasting capabilities up here from what I observe that it’s hit and miss whether those models are right. Or they just lack somebody to really interpret that data and get it out to the people that need it.”
Stotts says he’d welcome any type of local support from the NWS, even if the new role is limited to community outreach, as long as that staffer has the right tools and knows where to get the right information. Right now, if he really has a question, Stotts says he’ll call the office in Fairbanks.
“There’s definitely times when having that expert opinion would be a huge help,” Stotts says. “We’ve been blessed enough that in the few search and rescue events we’ve had, it was clear what the weather was doing. It wasn’t marginal, where some type of decision would be crucial, and extra-specific forecasting wasn’t really needed.”
That luck could run out in the future. Conditions are expected to become more unpredictable and violent, especially out at sea, as the region feels the worsening effects of climate change.
Brandon Ahmasuk says that when he and other subsistence users go boating in the springtime, they depend on the sea ice, which not only serves as a useful platform for hunters but also offers protection from big waves. Those important functions of ice could be diminished as temperatures rise. “With climate change, the open water area is bigger,” Ahmasuk says. “When there is open water, it’s more susceptible to high winds that create big waves.” Ahmasuk says he uses NWS data and other weather apps like Windy.com to check conditions, but there’s no meteorologist he calls to consult personally.
The reduced presence of the weather service in rural Alaska has also had implications for scientists who study climate change. Rick Thoman, a climate specialist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, lamented the lack of quality control especially when it comes to measuring precipitation here. He says the automated gauges are not designed with harsh Arctic conditions in mind, where high winds might affect readings.
“There have been several multi-gauge outages of the automated observation at the Nome airport, and the weather service has no backup, it’s a single point of failure,” Thoman says. “They’re not doing any quality control of the data. It doesn’t matter how obviously bad it is, it isn’t going to be changed.” Thoman could point to a couple spring storms from the past few years that were not recorded and are essentially wiped from the climate record. He says past snow and rain records are no longer so important for weather forecasters, who rely on model forecast information. But that data is crucial to scientists like him who are trying to understand long-term trends in climate.
Mike Couch, chief of the data acquisition branch at the NWS Alaska Regional Headquarters in Anchorage, said that no one likes to see missing data, but “we are strictly forbidden from estimating data for the climate record, so if we don’t get an actual measurement, it’s missing, period.”
It’s not just the automated systems that cause strife. Measuring snowfall and snow depth data still requires a human eye because of complicating factors like compaction and drifts. Those measurements had been part of Nome’s dataset for more than 100 years, but after the cuts, the NWS stopped having its sparsely staffed rural offices perform that function, and the agency had to look for volunteers as part of its COOP network to perform those tasks.
“We’re still struggling to find volunteer observers to do the cooperative program,” Couch said. “It’s nothing unique to Alaska. Across the nation, we’re having trouble getting volunteers to do this. It’s become harder and harder.”
The COOP network was formally established in 1890, but its history stretches back further, before the United States was even founded. According to the NWS, George Washington took weather observations until days before his death and Thomas Jefferson had an unbroken weather archive from 1776 to 1816. Now, with less individuals interested in keeping their own meticulous records, the NWS usually ends up partnering with companies or institutions that are willing to perform duties that can’t be automated.
In Nome, a volunteer with the radio station KNOM is manually checking weather gauges and measuring snow in winter.
Couch said they still don’t have volunteers in some places, such as Bethel and Kotzebue. “But we’re looking, we’re trying to find people to help us out,” he said.
In its search for new staff members at the NWS offices in Nome and Utqiagvik, the agency is casting a wide net. They’re looking for someone with a degree in the behavioral or social science and/or specialized experience helping an organization’s ability to serve communities. It’s unclear yet what functions the weather service could launch, or revive, with better community engagement and less forecasters on the ground. The agency has a River Watch Program to monitor ice breakup conditions in partnership with residents of rural Alaska villages. NWS used to coordinate special forecasts for whale hunts in Utqiagvik. Ultimately it’ll up to the people filling the new positions to identify what needs are unmet.
“The weather service puts out a lot of information,” Moore says. “But the question is, what information can we put out that actually helps people make decisions? What information can we put out that is actionable, so that somebody knows what decision they should make?” It’ll be helpful to have individual who can find those answers, he says. “The majority of the scientists that work within the National Weather Service, they are physical scientists who’re used to dealing with data—hydrologic data, observational data, computer models. The social scientist is going to allow us to interact in a different way to look at human behavior and the decision-making process.”