The weather goes regional

April 22, 1994

Once again Baltimore becomes a branch-office town, this time for the National Weather Service. As of today the local weather forecasting shifts to the Virginia suburbs of Washington.

It's not as crazy as it sounds. Advances in forecasting technology, especially radar, make it possible. The Doppler radar at Sterling, Va., near Dulles International Airport and a good 50 miles from Baltimore, gives better coverage to this area than did the older model located at the Patuxent Naval Air Station in Southern Maryland. Actually, a local TV station has been getting those colored blotches representing precipitation on their weather maps from Sterling for some time.

Still, weather forecasting remains an art as well as a science. The data that flow into weather service computers -- some of it from human observers -- are processed into increasingly precise forecasts. But aside from the tracks of approaching storms and the like, there's a lot of weather predicting that is heavily (P influenced by what sailors call "local knowledge." That's the kind of seat-of-the-pants judgment that comes from personal experience. It's especially important in predicting the wind and wave conditions so important to boaters on the Chesapeake Bay, since they can vary widely depending on location.

The loss of that kind of familiarity can be offset considerably by more observations of actual conditions on and near the bay. However valuable the fishing catch from the bay's waters, the Chesapeake is also a vital resource for the state in tourism and recreation. Surface observations are few and far between on the bay and offshore in the Atlantic. Some of the vital data collected on the bay by the Coast Guard are relayed through Norfolk. Concentrating the weather service's brain power in regional centers is more easily justified when it has more eyes and ears feeding them information.

Boaters and other listeners to NOAA radio in particular will miss the familiar tones of Fred Davis and his fellow meteorologists stationed at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Those broadcasts will come from Sterling as well. Avid consumers of weather data, like journalists, will miss the cheery sign-offs from Mr. Davis on hourly current-observation reports transmitted to their offices. The BWI office will be open for a while longer, and they'll still answer the phone there. But no more checking the skies out the window.

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