Sitting in front of a panel of computer monitors Monday morning, meteorologists at the National Weather Service in Reno stare intently at a ferocious electric-pink swirl developing just off the coast of Alaska.
A storm is coming. And scientists predict that this won’t just be any ordinary storm.
Meteorologists monitoring the satellite imagery say this system ” three back-to-back storms that will slam into the Sierra Nevada starting Thursday ” may set records.
“It has the potential to possibly make the list” of historical records for snowfall, said Meteorologist Alex Hoon. “But we’ll have to wait and see.”
On this particular morning at the National Weather Service in Reno ” a weather laboratory perched above Reno with a stunning view of the Sierra Nevada ” the sun is shining.
But howling winds, dark clouds and swirling snow were on the minds of the scientists decrypting the data streaming from a dozen or so weather models.
It’s a few days before the first storm is expected to hit, and already, the forecast is relatively confident. All of the weather models are pointing in the same direction ” indicating that this system will dump some five to eight feet ” not inches ” of snow.
“If all the models are saying the same thing, we have [more] confidence to put out a forecast,” Hoon said.
The three-part system will progressively get stronger, colder and more severe, with each storm setting the stage for the next, said Meteorologist Brian Brong, casually translating the foreign patterns, lines, images and blurs of electric color into a weather forecast.
“It’s really not the first storm we’re worried about,” Brong said. “It’s the second, and maybe the third.”
The initial storm is developing off the eastern coast of Asia, sweeping by Japan and heading towards Alaska. The storm’s warm origin, while increasing precipitation, will keep snow levels up in the higher elevations, Brong said. A foot of snow may fall in the mountains and a few inches at lake level.
The second storm, however, will pass through colder climates and is expected to bring in several feet of snow.
“There’s a fine line between when the coldest [storm] gets here and when the precipitation ends,” Brong said.
The third storm, expected to hit on Sunday, is just now showing up on the weather models. But it does look like it will be the coldest of all, Brong said.
“That might actually be the powder event,” he said.
Decoding the weather is a global process, localized.
Computer models input real-time data, taken from synchronized weather balloons released across the globe, into complex equations. The balloons measure air pressure, temperature, humidity and winds.
The results, which take several hours to generate, predict the jet stream’s direction and strength, the storm’s precipitation levels and air temperatures.
“If everything is coming together,” Hoon said. “Then we can make a good forecast.”
Meteorologists are trained interpreters, who read the weather model’s colorful jargon to predict the future of Mother Nature, and put the information within the context of the terrain, on-the-ground weather spotters, historical storms and their own background and discussions. The National Weather Service works 24-hours a day, seven days a week.
“You have to keep at the back of your mind that [the weather models] are a computer,” Hoon said.
The National Weather Service in Reno predicts the weather from Lassen County down to Mono County and well into central Nevada.
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