From personalized weather forecasting to high-tech climate modeling, it can be easy to assume that everything about modern weather forecasting and analysis is governed by satellites, computers and space age technology. Not so, however. Sometimes, weather forecasting still relies on good old human hard graft in some of the remotest locations on Earth.
Take this profile by John Ryan over at Alaska Dispatch News, exploring the work of William Wells — a man the paper calls "the weatherman at the end of the world." You see, Wells lives out on St Paul Island, 300 miles off mainland Alaska, and 500 miles from Siberia. The island is home to around 400 people.
Among Wells' daily duties is the manual launching of weather balloons — which are still used to collect data such as wind speed and relative humidity from the atmosphere. This data is then transmitted back to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), where it's used to inform the weather forecasts that all of us rely on in our daily lives. According to Wikipedia, there are still 800 locations around the world that launch daily releases of weather balloons.
It sounds like arduous, lonely work to me. But Wells says he loves it. Here's how he describes his posting:
Wells says his quiet life on the outskirts of St. Paul, on the outskirts of America, is lacking in some creature comforts, but it’s been good for him. “I lost 25 pounds after moving up here because I didn’t have the temptations of fast-food restaurants,” he says. It’s a different career path from his classmates', who get dressed up and made up and sweep their arms in front of maps on TV news. Jobs like his make their forecasts possible. “They can have the TV and the radio,” Wells says. “I’ll stick with this.”
And for those of us who are amazed that folks are still launching weather balloons manually, the Dispatch News article does mention that NOAA is developing automated launchers. In the meantime, however, it's kind of comforting to know that folks who enjoy solitude and wilderness are out there somewhere, launching balloons and collecting data that can help keep the rest of us safe and dry.
As for adding more waste to the ocean's already high load of trash that is, apparently, an issue. Even though the balloons are latex, the remains of weather balloons are apparently regularly found among beach litter around the world. Still, I guess you have to weigh the benefits of accurate forecasting against the downsides of choking seabirds. I know I have much more tolerance for weather balloon littering than I do for discarded water bottles or lost plastic flip-flops.
Head on over to Alaska Dispatch News for more details about the fascinating life of a remote weatherman.