Keeping a weather eye in Wakefield

Published 9:05 pm Tuesday, February 28, 2017

“Whether the weather is cold

Or whether the weather is hot,

We’ll be together, whatever the weather,

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Whether we like it or not.”

One of the -ologies we Master Naturalists study in our training is meteorology, the weather. The 90-minute class is taught at our Isle Of Wight classroom by a guy, Jeff Orrock, who is head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weather service office in Wakefield.

But recently some of us graduates got a special treat — a two-hour tour and class at Mr. Orrock’s weather station. On HIS turf, with HIS computers, HIS radar dome and dishes, and His data feeds, Mr. Orrock is a whataguy!

The National Weather Service station in Wakefield is manned 24/7/365, putting a terabyte (1,024 gigabytes) of data into models and forecasts that any television stations, radio stations, print media or others can access — including the public.

The meteorologists there are responsible for issuing watches and warnings for severe weather for the area from lower Maryland to Northeast North Carolina and from Farmville to 40 miles offshore. Whether it’s severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, marine events or any other severe weather, the NWS is watching.

This is how they operate: About six computers are manned at a time, running models (usually GFS and European, but up to 70 are available) of likely forecasts. Extreme predictions are basically ignored, and more probable predictions are created and posted every one to three hours.

Because much of their territory is water — the Chesapeake Bay, rivers, the Port of Hampton Roads, and offshore waters to 40 miles — much time is devoted to that forecast in cooperation with Morehead City to our south. The Navy and Coast Guard have their own limited capabilities, but they usually rely on the weather service.

The data they assess includes temperatures (at all altitudes), barometric pressures, wind speeds, water temps, moisture content of the atmosphere, buoy data, heights of cloud tops, speed of frontal movements and on and on and on.

On a difficult day they may hold 12 conference calls with shipping companies, National Forest Service folks planning controlled burns, hydrologists at dams, and other — in short, with people who have a need to know.

With big storms approaching, they may increase staff three days in advance. They have their own generators — one for the building and computers and one just for the radar — and about five days of fuel.

Check out detailed forecasts at

The meteorologists at NOAA are ever training, training, training. They are required to do 80 hours of training a year.

By the end of March an entirely new data source will appear — the GOES-16 (formerly GOES-R) satellite — that will download visible, semi-infrared, and infrared images of the U.S.A. in high-resolution detail every five minutes. During our tour, the building was being rewired to handle the new data feeds.

Mr. Orrock emphasized what many of us have known for a long time — that forecasts beyond three days out are guestimates, at best. But those three-day predictions get more detailed and more reliable all the time.

So, the local waters (which were at 34 degrees this time last year) are currently at 48-50 degrees. Buds are currently 24-28 days ahead of normal.

What would a hard freeze of 25 degrees in mid-March do to peaches and strawberries and our economy? What can we expect this summer?

That’s more than three days out.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at