Questions & Answers: Other Weather Questions

The following are questions asked of ACMP scientists and the answers they provided. Click on the question at the top to jump to the answer below.

How far back does the weather record go?

In Fairbanks, we have just over 100 years of weather data. However, it was in 1929 that the "modern era" of weather observing began, when more standardized practices were adopted and the weather service came to Fairbanks. Before that, the weather data is a little sketchy. In many parts of Alaska the oldest records go back about 100 years. Even though we have 100 years of data, the data is from different parts of Fairbanks. Right now, the official site for weather observations is at the airport. However, in the past it has been different places, including at the University, which is up on a hill. This is important to note when looking at data records over many years.-  Eric Stevens

If you found a weather balloon, could you reuse it?

The balloon and the parachute do not get reused. If the material rips, it cannot be reused. The instrument itself can be reused. They get minor repair and then are reused unless there are damaged too much, which can occur during the fall. - Eric Stevens

How high does the jet stream get and how wide is it?

We didn't even know there was a jet stream until WWII. At that point in time, they were getting ready to bomb Japan and were testing their equipment. They would fly up very high and hit these 100 mile per hour headwinds. The jet stream is a very high altitude phenomenon. There are rare cases where the jet stream can descend, but generally you can start to feel the jet stream about 20,000 feet up. It also moves North and South a slight bit from day to day. It is a narrow band of wind. It makes a loop around Earth. To the north and south of that high-speed river of air, at the same altitude, the wind speed can be relatively light.-  Eric Stevens

Why do clouds have different names?

In the sciences, they categorize everything. The names that you hear of clouds refer to some basic characteristics of clouds. For example, the term altocucumulus breaks down into alto, which means many layers, and cumulus, which means lumpy in Latin. Additionally, the different kinds of clouds indicate the different things that are going on in the atmosphere. For example, in the summertime, when we have a thunderstorm, we see cumulonimbus clouds, the high vertically developed clouds. The Latin term means vertically developed rain cloud. - Eric Stevens

Is there a difference in the speed of the rise of a balloon if it is in cold weather or warm weather?

It will go faster in cold weather because there is greater density in the atmosphere and the contrast between the inside of the balloon and the outside would be greater, forcing the balloon upwards faster. - Eric Stevens

How do you predict weather over the ocean?

Data over the ocean comes from three sources: ship reports, which consist of surface observations; airplane weather stations, which collect basic weather data; and satellite data. - Eric Stevens

Why do we have wind?

The Earth's atmosphere, which we call air tries to move heat from the equator toward the pole. In order for that to happen, warm air is trying to float - it's like opening a perfume bottle in a room. If you open a perfume bottle in a room, eventually the person on the other side of the room is going to smell it because it's going to move and spread out. The atmosphere does the same thing. You heat the air at the equator. So, now that air at the equator is going to move the warm air to where it's cold because it wants everything to be even, but the Earth rotates, and the air ends up spinning and we get wind. On a more local level, if you have something that's heated, you heat the air and the hot air rises. Cold comes in from below to fill that in. The air is moving and that's wind. - Cathy Cahill

Why is it so windy in Shishmaref, Alaska?

If you look at how the air is moving, you find that there are certain areas of the world where you tend to have really deep storms. One of those areas is in the Bering Sea. It impacts the west coast of Alaska. Shishmaref is in the area where there are lots of big storms on a regular basis. With those storms there is a lot of air moving, which is the wind. In Shishmaref, there are no other landforms to divert the air, because the land is flat, so the wind hits it directly. - Cathy Cahill

How would you best describe how the air from the high pressure moves into the lower pressure?

High pressure with air means you have a lot of air stacked up, and low pressure means you don't have much. The air molecules are going to try to go from the high pressure to the low pressure by going down the gradient. As they go down the gradient the challenge is the Coriolis force, which causes things to spin. As it's going from the high to the low, it's going to change direction. The air molecules don't end up flowing from high to low, they end up flowing in the middle, perpendicular to the line between them. So, they kind of go down and twist. That's where you get the wind. You end up with the molecules moving clockwise around the high, counterclockwise around the low. The molecules are moving from high to low, it's just that they get sidetracked.-  Cathy Cahill

Who supplies the aviation weather reports? Is that the National Weather Service? Does one person take credit for that for each state?

The aviation weather reports come from a variety of places. The Fairbanks weather service staff prepares the Alaska aviation weather report each day. The aviation weather unit in Anchorage also provides some weather reports. The National office in DC provides some surface charts as well. Private weather companies can also be hired to provide weather reports. Everybody has access to this data: government agencies and private companies. Anyone can create his or her own weather charts.-  John Lingaas

How much advantage notice do you have of storms?

All the weather station data goes back to computer models back at the Weather Service in DC. They make predictions about what is going to happen with the weather. There are also other weather models - the navy has one, there is one in Canada, etc. We look at these various predictions from various models and compare them. Based on those models, they will issue warnings for 36 to 48 hours in advance. However, in areas where there is not a lot of data there is a challenge to make a forecast. So, if the weather system is coming from Northern Russia it may be more difficult to make the forecast than if the weather system is coming from a more data rich area, such as the Pacific Northwest of the United States.-  John Lingaas

What data is used to forecast the weather?

There are several different types. We use satellite information, radar. There are several types of surface data, as well. Weather balloons, which give data on the upper atmosphere, are important as well. All these things go into our analysis of the weather. All the data is also fed into high speed computers to try to model the atmosphere.-  John Lingaas

What is the highest and lowest temperature you've seen in Alaska?

The highest temperature I've experienced in Alaska was about 92 F in Fairbanks in the 80s. The lowest I think was -55 F in January of 1989, when it got very cold all across Alaska. - John Lingaas

Why is it so windy in the Bering Strait region?

One of the reasons is that during the winter, high pressure develops over Russia or the Arctic Ocean to the north. In either place, there is low pressure that moves along the Aleutian Chain or Gulf of Alaska. This causes some amount of northerly winds. Near the wind and ice, the geography of the Bering Strait funnels the air currents and raises the air speeds.- John Lingaas

What is the most common way to display weather data?

One of the things that we like to do as meteorologists is to display weather data on top of each other on maps. - John Lingaas

What are some different types of jobs related to weather?

The obvious one is meteorologist, which requires a bachelor's degree in meteorology or atmospheric science. To be a meteorologist, you have to be able to do math pretty well, and general physics. There are also positions for computer programmers, electronic technicians, those who work on the sensing equipment, and administrative jobs.-  John Lingaas

How are weather warnings distributed?

Weather warnings are disturbed to the communities that need them. Smaller weather offices in Alaska are often in charge of relay weather advisories and warning to the villages through the village government or safety officer. - John Lingaas

What's the significance of keeping long-term weather records?

There are many places in Alaska where long-term weather records do not exists. It's important to start records in those places. Even though other places in Alaska might have large quantities of data, they can't see the whole picture. The new site can also be used to make a more detailed image of the whole. - John Lingaas

What do weather balloons measure and how are they launched?

Temperature, humidity, and air pressure. They also can calculate wind speed and direction. They are launched at 14 different locations in Alaska, including Nome. The Nome office launches one weather balloon daily. The launch takes about 2 hours for the balloon to ascend all the way up into the upper atmosphere. In the box that is tied to the balloon are the sensors to collect the data, a transmitter that will transmit the data back to a receiver in the local office. The balloon goes up to 55,000 feet before it bursts. The balloon is biodegradable. The transmitters fall to the ground. They are not actively retrieved, but if someone finds them, they can be returned to the office. They are then sent to a facility that recycles the parts to make new transmitters.-  John Lingaas

How do you get accurate location readings from weather balloons?

There are two ways to do it. In the past, they would track the balloon with a little tiny telescope that has precise marks that show how far around and how high they are. With a little bit of math, they could figure out exactly where the balloon was. Now, they can figure out where it's going by the transmissions that are sent from the radiosonde. - David Atkinson

A report from the National Weather Service said that storms in Alaska were getting fewer, but the conditions were worse. Are we seeing different results than tropical areas?

A lot of people have an idea in their mind that climate change means a uniform change everywhere; if the temperature is rising, then it's rising everywhere. However, changes do not happen the same everywhere. Alaska and the Yukon are really warming up, but there are some areas of the Arctic, even in the last 40 years, that haven't changed at all. The same is true for storms. There are some areas where storms are worse, but there are other areas, maybe in the tropics, where they are not changing at all. I'm not sure of details of all tropical areas. There were a couple of research papers that came out not too long ago, that talked about the fact that tropical storms both in the Atlantic and Pacific were increasing in intensity.

Another important thing to remember with climate change is that there is a lot of variability from one day to the next. For example, in 2004/05 there were a lot of hurricanes in the Southeast. However, this last year there were very few. A change in variability is part of climate change: temperature, sea ice, and storms. - David Atkinson

How big are the weather balloons?

The balloons are very big, but they don't fill them all the way up. When you take a balloon and take it in an airplane, you would find the balloon would get bigger. The air inside the balloon pushes out against the walls of the balloon, and then air outside the balloon pushes back. When you take a balloon up really high, the amount of air inside the balloon stays the same, but there is less air outside the balloon, so less to push back and the air inside the balloon can push out more. The balloon is filled up part way and sent up, but as they go up they get bigger and bigger until they pop. They reach 300 feet across before they pop.-  David Atkinson

Go back to view all Question and Answer themes