Our weather to be forecast from Va.

April 15, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

The winds of change are about to blow the voice of Baltimore's weather forecasts all the way to Northern Virginia.

Starting next Friday, all National Weather Service forecasts and severe storm warnings for the Baltimore metropolitan area will originate from a new high-tech facility in Sterling, Va., near Dulles Airport.

That will end 44 years of forecasting service to the Baltimore metro area by the weathermen at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

The BWI office won't be closed right away, according to Jim Belville, meteorologist-in-charge at the Sterling facility. Members of BWI's veteran staff will continue to provide forecasts and warnings for Maryland's Eastern Shore. They will also remain available for local briefings to the public, pilots and the news media.

"But right now it's designed as a transitional thing," Mr. Belville said. Unless the local services prove to be "a real value to the community," they will be gone in two years. Forecast responsibility for the Eastern Shore will shift to new facilities in New Jersey and southern Virginia.

The quality of the local forecasts should not be affected, officials say. They may even get better. But the change goes down hard for some.

"We don't like what's happening as far as our loss of identity," said Amet Figueroa, 59, a forecaster at BWI for 25 years. "Being an old-timer, I think some of the local knowledge will be missing."

The new Doppler radar and other improvements will eventually produce a better product, he said. But "we're talking about the human factor."

Mr. Belville said forecasters in Sterling, with the aid of automated instruments at BWI and volunteer weather spotters, will do as well, and they will be just as accessible to the public. It will be a toll call, however. The public line is (703) 260-0107. The changeover is part of a $2 billion modernization by the National Weather Service. It includes expansion of the high-performance Doppler weather radar network and consolidation of 253 weather offices around the country into 130 with bigger, more highly trained staffs and better equipment.

Meteorologists in Sterling are already using their $2.5 million Doppler radar to provide forecasts and warnings to parts of West Virginia and Northern Virginia. They also serve a swath of Maryland extending from Allegany County through the Washington suburbs and to the tip of Southern Maryland. Next Friday, Baltimore City, Carroll, Baltimore, Harford, Howard and Anne Arundel counties will be added.

The downgrading of the BWI office should be mostly invisible to area residents, said Fred Davis, 60, the chief meteorologist who will retire June 30 after more than 25 years at BWI.

"But, from a human standpoint, I hate to see it go," he said.

For one thing, next Friday will be the last day that he and his four-man staff will broadcast their local forecasts and warnings over Baltimore's NOAA Weather Radio station, something they've been doing since 1974.

From a closet-size studio at BWI, the little station reaches out about 40 miles and provides 24-hour weather updates. The weathermen are heard over the squawky VHF weather radios used by many pilots and dispatchers to keep up with developments. Believe it or not, Mr. Davis said, "people recognize our voices and know when we're off on vacation." After next Friday, new voices will be speaking from Sterling, and some will be female.

Weather information from the Doppler radar facility at Sterling is already provided to BWI's forecasters, and it has proved its value, Mr. Davis said.

When the remnants of Hurricane Andrew were moving through the region on Aug. 28, 1992, Mr. Davis first checked the conventional radar data from the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. Before Doppler technology, that was all anyone had to rely on.

The Patuxent radar showed no danger of tornadoes in Maryland.

But after he telephoned Sterling and received the Doppler data, Mr. Davis said, "I issued nine tornado warnings, and seven of them were later verified."

After next Friday, no telephone calls will be needed. The forecasters at Sterling will spot the storms and immediately issue the warnings.

Conventional radar locates precipitation by bouncing its signal off droplets of moisture in the air. The smallest weather features it can detect are about two miles wide.

Doppler radar not only locates the moisture, but measures its speed and direction. And the narrower beam can reveal details as small as 750 feet across. That makes Doppler valuable in identifying tornadoes, wind shears, heavy downpours and other phenomena as they're forming, giving forecasters time to issue storm and flood warnings.

It can carve storm clouds into three-dimensional sections to measure moisture content as well as winds and changeovers from snow and ice to rain.

It can even spot dust, smoke, haze and light snow invisible to conventional radar.

Barbara J. McNaught, warning coordinator at Sterling, said the faster, more accurate storm warnings are likely to avert economic losses that would outweigh the costs of the new radar network within five years. "And that's conservative," she said.

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