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Whither weather?

The U.S. is obsessed with weather, and Ron Gird thinks that's the greatest thing since Doppler radar.

BY SUSAN KIM | LOUISVILLE, Ky. | May 19, 2004

"Volunteers record rainfall, frozen snow, snowfall, snow depth, river levels, soil temperatures and air temperatures."

—Ron Gird

The U.S. is obsessed with weather, and Ron Gird thinks that's the greatest thing since Doppler radar. A meteorologist with the National Weather Service, he thrives here in the most active weather country on earth.

The number of severe weather events in the U.S. dwarfs statistics in other countries. The U.S. sees 10,000 severe thunderstorms a year, compared to 500 in Canada and 100 in France. The U.S. racks up 1,000 tornadoes a year, while Germany and China each tally less than 10.

"Yeah, so we stay extremely busy throughout the year," Gird said. "Weather has a huge impact on this country."

Gird has six pens in his front shirt pocket, and he can talk about weather in a way that makes people look over their shoulder for the next tornado. "My daughter calls me a nerd for watching the Weather Channel all the time. I knew I wanted to be a meteorologist since I was a kid, growing up in Boston."

As weather-driven as he is, Gird can speak in layperson's terms, and he'll answer anybody's question. "There is never a dumb question regarding weather," he said.

What's going on with the weather, anyway? In the U.S. - at least from a meteorological perspective - there are four big weather events: thunderstorms (which include tornadoes), hurricanes, winter storms and floods.

Forecasters do their best to predict the arrival of these events, but it's not, in fact, the forecast that's most important, Gird admitted. It's what people do with it. "If people don't react to that forecast, we haven't done our job."

Sometimes that means looking behind the news headlines and surfing the National Weather Service Web site to find out what's really going on. While a hurricane might make national news, after the storm wanes to tropical status, it might get dropped from the headlines. But that doesn't mean major damage isn't happening, pointed out Gird. "During Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, 40 inches of rain fell in some parts of Texas."

And even meteorologists sometimes downplay the most life-threatening weather event of all: heat. Statistics show 219 people die each year from the heat in the U.S., but Gird believes the number is much higher. "The numbers may actually be double that - or more. We think it may be more like 500 to 1,000 people."

Elderly people and very young children are most at risk, he said.

With that in mind, the National Weather Service - working with the University of Pennsylvania medical school - has put into place a new heat index that takes into account factors such as the nighttime temperature and the humidity. "It's not how high the temperature gets during the daytime, it's how low the temperature gets at night. The body doesn't have enough time to retool. It it gets cool during the night, the body is able to take advantage of that."

Headline-making hurricanes, on the other hand, can cause massive economic damage but, comparatively at least, they don't cause a lot of fatalities, largely because "they are very well-covered on the news," Gird said.

It's not only residents who should react to forecast - it's businesses and industries, too, he pointed out. "If we give good wind readings, the aviation industry uses less fuel."

Gird is in good company. He works with 4,800 peers at the National Weather Service, many of whom are as excited about the weather as he is. There are 122 National Weather Service offices across the country, and they're open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

What it boils down to is assessing and reassessing, every minute, every day, said Gird. "You'll do the exact same thing as doctors do in their profession - well, only the pay is considerably less," he admitted.

How to get data from so many locations, with so little time? There are 12,000 volunteer weather observers across the country, and apparently they're as excited by weather as Gird is. "Volunteers record rainfall, frozen snow, snowfall, snow depth, river levels, soil temperatures and air temperatures."

So who really cares about soil temperature? The swarms of cicadas flying over the eastern U.S. care, said Gird. "They emerged when the soil temperature reached 64 degrees, so we could predict their emergence."

The National Weather Service is also eyeing how to tie its warning system more closely with other warning processes, said Gird. "We are trying to incorporate 'Amber Alerts,' " he said, referring to a national alert that goes out via news media when a child is missing.

Meteorologists are also continually trying to dispel myths about weather. "Everyone has seen that famous footage of a person who encountered a tornado and hid beneath an underpass," he said. "Well, that's the wrong thing to do. The underpass can act as a funnel for flying debris.

"We're trying hard to retrain people and tell them not to take shelter beneath an overpass."

The National Weather Service is also working on ways to more effectively get warnings out to non-English speaking communities. "They are often people with the highest risk. They don't know it's even coming," he said. "It's a serious problem."

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