Sacramento weather bureau is where the storm action is

Forecasters aided by technology in pinpointing upcoming weather conditions
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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SACRAMENTO – It’s the nerve center for weather forecasting from Shasta to Stanislaus counties, covering the high peaks of the Sierra to the valley floor. And on Friday, the Sacramento office of the National Weather Service was keeping an ever-vigilant eye on storms that had started to push into Northern California after weeks of sunny weather and no rain. Kathy Hoxsie, a weather bureau meteorologist who serves as the Sacramento office’s warning coordinator, worked with a second forecaster and a meteorological technician behind an array of computer and TV screens to produce forecasts and updates. The storm – which was producing a light drizzle Friday morning – had moved in Thursday, ending what had been a spike in weather interest by the public. Counter-intuitively, people are interested when weather isn’t doing what it is expected to do, Hoxsie said. So the arrival of rain – a normal occurrence throughout the winter – didn’t mean more questions from the public. “We get almost as many calls when there is no weather,” Hoxsie said. “People want to know if there is a drought, when the next storm is coming, when will the sunny weather end? The interest actually lessens a bit because the weather is doing what everyone’s expecting it to do.” But weather remains one of the fickle facts of life for everyone from airplane pilots to farmers to truck drivers planning a trek over the Sierra. And the weather service uses a formidable array of tools in its forecasting arsenal to help answer the ages-old question: “How’s the weather?” Hoxsie, who has worked for the Weather Service for 25 years, said the availability of satellite imagery has been a major advance. And the abilities of computers to use overlapping data to aid in storm-tracking has also been a key technological improvement. “When I came in, we were still hand-analyzing charts and going outside for observations,” Hoxsie said. “And satellite imagery was still not readily available.” The National Weather Service has 25 employees working out of a nondescript office building in suburban Sacramento. It shares space on a top floor with the state Department of Water Resources flood operations center. Meteorologist Eric Kurth started a shift Thursday that would see him working through the weekend, with plenty of storm activity to chart. He was concentrating on forecasts for aviation as well as keeping tabs on the off chance of a wildland fire. Additionally, a key part of Kurth’s duties was to develop an extended forecast. “One to three days out is our bread and butter but we’re really looking at seven and 10 days out,” Hoxsie said. Kurth has worked on the East Coast and Midwest as well as California, forecasting hurricanes, tornadoes and blizzards as well as the storms off the Pacific that usually buffet Northern California this time of year. Even the so-called normal rainstorm is hard to read many times. “Last year we had a La Nina and this year we had one,” Kurth said. “With that ingredient the patterns are tricky. It’s a challenge but I think we really do a good job.” And forecasting from Sacramento to Auburn and beyond will be getting another layer of high-tech certainty soon when the Doppler radar system is upgraded for dual polarization capabilities. “Rather than just a horizontal beam that shoots through the storms and lets us know what’s going on in the storm, it’s going to have a horizontal and vertical beam so we can more effectively determine what’s been going on inside the storm,” Hoxsie said. “Hopefully, this will greatly improve our forecasts and our warnings.”