One person's winter wonderland is another's snowmageddon—and it turns out that politics aren't nearly as divisive as cold weather. Take, for example, this past week when Boise was draped in a blanket of snow. Fans of fresh powder went into a tizzy as they dusted off their skis and snowboards. But just as many folks grumbled as they trekked to the hardware store to stock up on dei-icer and windshield wiper fluid. Love it or loathe it, there's no hiding from winter. Face it: commerce, construction, recreation, even educational and governmental entities are no match for a blast of wicked winter weather. Look no further than three winters ago, when Boise was crippled by an unprecedented snowpocalypse. Then there was the winter two years ago, which was so dry it left ski resorts swimming in red ink and triggered a nearly year-long drought. All of this makes the men and women who work 24/7 year-round at the Boise office of the National Weather Service the most important team in the region.
To be sure, the NWS office is serious business, and its guarded facility is high-tech heaven. Imagine a wall of huge video monitors streaming real-time imagery—temperatures, precipitation, cloud cover, wind, atmospheric pressure, jet streams, you name it. But the real show-stoppers are the high-def photographs that come complements of something called GOES-17, a satellite launched earlier this year that beams back to Earth unprecedented images of the western hemisphere. To date, it's the biggest howitzer in the western U.S. meteorologist's arsenal.
"Here, take a look at this. The resolution is much finer, both in time and space," said Jay Breidenbach, a warning coordination meteorologist and 25-year veteran of the NWS. Breidenbach quickly turned to his colleagues (there are 23 in total, 12 of them forecasters). "Please zoom in on this disturbance," he said before turning back to the giant western map as it zoomed in to central California. In seconds, a gray, lava-like river of fog sweeping across the San Joaquin Valley filled the screen. "It flows like water. We've never seen anything like this before. And here's why it's particularly important for our part of the west: Previously, when we'd watch a storm, a number of areas in the west haven't had good radar images. But now, we're watching it from this satellite, from directly above. It's a huge difference."
This winter, the NWS office in Boise will be turning to the GOES-17 a lot, along with more than 22,000 grid points scattered throughout the western Idaho and eastern Idaho coverage areas, to craft precise forecasts. Breidenbach told Boise Weekly that right now, there's a good chance that Boise will get an El Nino for Christmas (and beyond).
"There's actually an El Nino Watch in effect right now. We're keeping a close eye on ocean temperatures in the Pacific near the equator. When those temperatures average out to be warmer than the average for this time of year, that will make it an El Nino. And as we speak, we're seeing a warm mass of water just beneath the water's surface out there," he said. "That in turn would push the jet stream further north here in the western U.S."
In simpler terms, that means: "Warmer, drier weather. December, January, February and into March. Make no mistake, we'll have snow, but..." Breidenbach paused for a moment. "Do you remember the winter of 2015/16? Warmer than normal. Ski resorts struggled. Boise only saw about 10 inches of snow that year. The next year, we had La Nina conditions when we had snowmageddon—about 40 inches of snow. Last year was pretty typical. But it's looking like El Nino again for this year."
- George Prentice
- Meteorologist and Lead Forecaster Bill Wojcik works on the short-term forecast at the Boise office of the NWS.
Breidenbach pointed to two pie charts that were crafted at the NWS home office. The first indicated a 53 percent chance of the Treasure Valley winding up with a warm winter. A second pie chart indicated that there was a 66 percent chance of Boise experiencing near-normal or below-normal precipitation this year.
"Sometimes, it's as many as seven years between El Nino weather systems. The anomalies are usually during the winter," he added. "But the impact of a below-normal snowpack could set us up for droughts during the summer months."
That accentuates the serious nature of weather forecasting.
"The economic impact is a very big part of our mission. If you think about any business, weather plays a big role. Think about how weather through the month of December will impact the holiday shopping season, and of course, travel. We have a very close working relationship with the airport here in Boise. We have a private chat room and our meteorologists are always working on something called the Terminal Aerodrome Forecast, commonly known to aviators as the TAF," said Breidenbach.
But the biggest part of the mission is, and always will be, public safety.
"This year's Hurricane Michael was devastating to the Gulf Coast. But look back to the Galveston [Texas] hurricane of 1900, which claimed maybe 10,000 lives. Hurricane Michael was of similar intensity. Unfortunately, about 50 people died. [But] we knew it was coming. A lot of people were prepared," said Breidenbach.
That's all the more reason to praise the mission of the National Weather Service.
"Nationwide, there were 17 disasters last year which exceeded $1 billion," said Breidenbach. "We're on the same pace again this year."