Story last updated at 4/9/2014 - 3:51 pm
Juneau senior weather forecaster Brian Bezenek made his first prediction was when he was a teenager growing up in the Midwest. He told his sister there would be blizzard on her birthday, Nov. 9.
He was right.
Later, he told his other sister there would be a hailstorm on her birthday in June.
Again, he was right.
"Two for two," he joked. "I've been working to have that streak ever since."
Decades later, predicting harsh weather is still the most rewarding part of his job, Bezenek said.
"The No. 1 premise at our job here (at the National Weather Service) is to save life and property," he said. "Everyone wants to know when it's going to be sunny so they can take their picnic, but it's more important for me to tell people that it's going to be blowing 70 miles an hour and there's going to be 17-foot seas. They don't want to take their fishing vessel out in it. They're not going to want to put up a tent on Douglas during a Taku event. Anything to let people know where the hazards are. And knowing that I've done that and affected safety measures for everyone is something that brings me pleasure," he said.
People call the Weather Service office to thank the forecasters. They'll also call to tell them they were wrong.
"We also file that information away... so the next time that situation happens, we can do a better job," Bezenek said. "Even the complaints we missed the forecast - if they provided us what's really going on, helps us."
Bezenek has spent his entire career in Alaska, arriving in Nome in 1992. After Nome, he came to Juneau; except for an interlude in Anchorage, Juneau is where he's stayed.
The National Weather Service has a handful of forecasters in an office housed on Mendenhall Loop Road. Juneau is one of three forecast offices in the state: Anchorage has the largest, and Fairbanks the second-largest. The forecast offices are fed by a network of 12 "service offices" that include Barrow and St. Paul, Cold Bay and Yakutat. The service offices collect data and feed it to the forecast offices, which process the raw data into useful information.
In their building on Mendenhall Loop Road, bezenek and other forecasters work at stations draped in computer screens. On one, Bezenek draws pictures of what he thinks will happen in different locations - rain, snow, sun, wind, waves. A program runs in the background, sampling three-mile by three-mile sections of Southeast Alaska. When it finishes, it generates a text forecast.
Human forecasters add to that forecast or change it based on what, in their experience, the program can't handle.
Often, the computer can't handle local conditions. The back of the Mendenhall Valley, for example, varies more from the valley's mouth than the computer expects.
Like other weather stations, Juneau also receives data from sites around the world: polar satellites, weather buoys in the oceans and stations like the one in Juneau.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration launches around 75,000 weather balloons per year - more than 200 per day - from 102 locations, in order to measure humidity, wind speed, temperature, and other climactic variables.
Some of the tools may have changed, but the interpretation of data over the years has stayed the same over his 22 years in Alaska, Bezenek said.
"We're still looking at the same types of data we had when I started," he said.
While the benchmarks of temperature, barometric pressure and wind haven't changed, the measurements have become more numerous, precise and accurate.
The downside that growth in data is that forecasters have less time to spend looking at each aspect of a forecast, he said.
"We have to figure out what our problem of the day is early in the shift, and concentrate on that problem," he said.
The day Bezenek sat down with the Weekly, forecasters were trying to determine what was happening with a weather system coming over the Aleutians, responsible for snow the week of March 16. How much wind would it bring?
"A number of times we're fairly certain something is going to happen and it just refuses to cooperate with our forecast. Those are the times we hide from our friends in town. It's one of those things that happen. It's not an exact science, as much as we'd like it to be; I like to think it's an art," Bezenek said.
Mathematical errors early in the process can compound, leading to an erroneous forecast. Forecasters use equations to calculate changes in temperature, water changing form, radiation from solar heating and cooling. One small mistake can lead to an erroneous forecast.
Part of the art is realizing when computer-generated predictions are wrong, Bezenek said.
"After a number of years, you can look at it and realize you've seen this pattern with the models before," Bezenek said. "The models are showing this, but we need to adjust the forecast this way, because the last 17 times I've seen this, this has happened instead."
Another thing people may not know about weather forecasters in Southeast Alaska: they don't know what a regular work schedule looks like. They're there around the clock. Almost every forecaster rotates between the day shift, the evening shift, and the night shift, meaning at noon, 8 p.m. or 4 a.m., depending on their schedule, they could be in the middle of a shift.
"I still find people are totally amazed that we're here 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year," Bezenek said. "There is no such thing as a holiday for us."