Riverton National Weather Service office assists ag producers in planning operation activities
For those involved in the agriculture community, no matter what part of the country they’re in or what products they raise, the weather is always the very important and closely watched wild card.
Chris Jones, the Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the National Weather Service (NWS) in Riverton, explains that his agency offers many tools to help Wyoming’s ag producers plan weather-influenced tasks on their farms and ranches.
“People wonder how we make our forecasts, and, contrary to popular belief, we don’t use dart boards and dice,” jokes Jones. “Today we use a high-resolution digital forecast, while 17 years ago when I joined the agency our technology was very different. As recently as 10 years ago we were still sitting down and typing out a seven-day forecast every 12 hours, at a minimum.”
Now, says Jones, the service creates high-resolution digital forecasts and a graphical database using computers.
“We draw those pictures, and the computer helps us. What we do is create a digital forecast database so the public can extract information from it,” he explains. “We also now get our text forecasts from the graphical database.”
The Wyoming NWS forecasts can be found on their website, and Jones says the basic premise of the website is to provide a clickable map, color-coded for watches and warnings, where people can click on their points of interest and the site will bring up a page with text and graphics to explain the desired information.
“On the page we also have a clickable Google map, with a red box that represents one-and-a-half square miles. We forecast nearly 60,000 of those all the time across our area, and there’s a black crosshair that shows the latitude and longitude of the point selected,” he explains.
The reason the NWS began to offer a clickable map like that is because different areas can have very different forecasts, and the forecast with the Google map takes snowfall averages, average winds and elevation into account.
“There are some places that are primarily windy, while five or 10 miles outside that corridor there can be a whole different world. That kind of detail is put into these forecasts,” says Jones. “The idea is that, by using computer strength and power, we can interpolate between those points for a more accurate forecast than just a broad geographic area.”
Of how many more groups now forecast the weather, Jones says, “When I joined the Weather Service in 1994 we had two models, and for a temperature forecast we now compete for the best forecast against 41 models. We use model data to see which models have been doing well, and use our own expertise to change it according to certain areas, like basins.”
The Riverton NWS office also launches a balloon twice a day, at 4 a.m. and at 4 p.m., and also gather data from aircraft.
“All that data gets crunched by supercomputers, and ours are in Washington, D.C.,” says Jones, noting that there is also one that runs on a Wyoming scale.
“The next time you go to your hunting camp with your GPS, get the coordinates of the camp, and when you get home log onto our website and bookmark that point,” says Jones. “That way, rather than having a forecast for the entire eastern side of the Wind River Mountains, for example, you can have a forecast for your camp’s location.”
Forecasts can also be customized for specific areas. For example, if someone wanted to know when their temperatures would fall between 70 and 80 degrees in order to accomplish a certain activity, they can type that range in, along with the location, and the website will produce the blocks of time when the area is expected to be in that degree range.
“If you’re interested just in finding out what to do with your hay, you can call us up and talk to us about when the best time would be to hay. If you’re calving, you can ask us how cold it’s expected to get, or when the snow will set in. We can give you that information, and we’re there 24 hours a day, so you can call us at four in the morning when you get started with your day,” says Jones.
The NWS website also offers drought monitor information, both on the nationwide and state level, and the long- and short-term climate outlooks.
“The six- to 10-day and eight- to 14-day outlooks are very broad, and if you need help deciphering them, call us up,” says Jones. “They’ll show the trends in temperatures and precipitation, and we can see how that relates to what you’re looking to do on your operation.”
The 30- to 90-day outlooks change from time to time, says Jones.
“We’re transitioning out of La Nina to a neutral phase,” he says. “La Nina was very strong the end of last calendar year, so right now the June/July outlook looks like a warmer summer.”
Jones says that those who live in more remote areas can help fill in data through the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network, or CoCoRaHS, for short.
“You’re out in the holes where we don’t have reports, on the 10,000 acres where you live, and you can provide us rain and snow information from your farm or ranch,” says Jones.
Interested landowners can visit cocorahs.org to sign up and become involved. New participants attend a training session, and Jones says staff from the Riverton office will come provide training to a group of area landowners.
“When you’re done with training, set out your rain gauge, take a daily measurement and record it on the website,” notes Jones. “That data provides input for decision-makers for people at local offices and for the Bureau of Reclamation, which needs to decide how much water to release and how much to plan for in a year. The state climatologist can also use the data for drought graphics, and it can provide accuracy and corrections in case of computer glitches incorrectly reporting conditions in an area. Local officials can use the data to say how bad the drought was, and support their case for assistance.”