Dry spell is no picnic for weather forecasters - East Valley Tribune: News

Dry spell is no picnic for weather forecasters

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Posted: Saturday, January 28, 2006 5:22 am | Updated: 2:40 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

For a region where the sky is stuck on “sunny,” the local National Weather Service meteorologists sure have a lot to do.

There’s planning for the wildfire season, which promises to be nasty. Flash flood danger zones are plotted by comparing boundaries of previous fires against creeks, washes and streams.

Officials at the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management need wind and humidity data for safe prescribed burns.

And, of course, the meteorologists must keep an eye on the empty rain gauge at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. No precipitation has fallen there since Oct. 18 — a recordbreaking 102 consecutive days without a trace of rain.

“Even though you think, ‘No precip — how hard can the job be?’ ” said David Runyan, the warning coordination meteorologist in the Phoenix office of the National Weather Service. “Well, the job, in fact, increases.”

All around Runyan were computer monitors and a projection screen showing variations on the theme: No rain. One display portrayed the atmosphere’s water vapor, with a black pocket of dry air slipping across the Colorado River. Another showed which areas of the country are in the grips of a drought and to what degree.

All but a sliver of northwest Arizona was highlighted.

“We’re re-entering this long-term drought we’ve been in the last seven years,” Runyan said. “There was a brief respite there, last year — January, February, when we had abundant precipitation. But after February we fell right back into a pattern of very little precipitation, so by the end of the year we were in a deficit.”

According to weather service data, the Valley’s precipitation total of 46 inches since the beginning of 1999 is about 20 percent below normal.

Phoenix’s weather forecast office is tucked away in a Salt River Project building adjacent to a baseball stadium, a firefighting museum and a zoo near Papago Park. The office’s Doppler radar dome is at Williams Gateway Airport.

More than 120 similar offices are scattered across America, and at least one has noticed central Arizona’s aridity.

“Congratulations on your new record,” a meteorologist from Flagstaff said during a morning conference call among the three state offices and Las Vegas.

Runyan noted that just because the weather service relies on science and logic when issuing forecasts, that doesn’t mean meteorologists are dispassionate observers. “All forecasters have biases,” he said. “And they tend to be optimists rather than pessimists.”

No meteorologist wanted to venture a guess when rain would fall again in the Valley — but one speculated on the possibility that the next precipitation could come from the summer monsoons.

“Any way you cut it,” read a weather service report issued Friday afternoon, “we are not seeing any threat over the next seven days that would bring an end to our record rainless streak.”

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