Forecasting Team Gets Ready to Predict Weather For Winter Games

Weather determines the wax that skiers choose for their skis and the numbers they select in the line-up for an event.

It determines road conditions or the range of dispersal of toxic gas if terrorists attack.

Weather may also play an important part of Salt Lake City’s image?not a very nice one if the unsightly inversion shows up this February.

For the first time in Olympic history, the government, the private sector and academia have teamed up to deliver forecasts for the Games in 2002.

An all-day workshop Friday at the Huntsman Cancer Institute focused on making these predictions.

The National Weather Service will work on public safety, keeping an eye on the roads, for instance.

KSL meteorologists, lead by Mark Eubank, will generate highly specific outlooks for the individual venues.

And the University of Utah will provide support with its weather sensors and advanced computer models. U students will also act as volunteers, collecting observations.

U meteorology students Matt Masarik and Sherrie Hebert participated in last season’s dry run forecasts.

And in about three months, they will help record and relay weather data, such as snow temperature and sky cover at venues.

Several volunteers will take information at each venue.

It is not an opportunity that Hebert feels will help her develop a career in meteorology?she’s in it just for the experience.

“Skiers are flying right by” while she takes data, Hebert said. Other volunteers may never have the chance to see an event.

According to Tom Potter, U professor and Salt Lake Organizing Committee meteorologist, the list of weather threats includes heavy snow which must be removed from the venues; strong winds reaching above 100 miles per hour in some places; avalanches; and the list goes on.

Larry Dunn, National Weather Service meteorologist, described a worst-case scenario, the sort that planners need to keep in the back of their minds.

A deep snow pack blankets the valley, followed by a warm, wet storm. The city has to pile up sandbags to control the flooding. Then a cold front brings in lake-effect snow. The city is unable to plow the streets because of the sandbags.

Storms have two sides to them, he said. While they can bring in needed snow, they can also wreak havoc on roads.

“What I want is a good weather forecast,” he said. “A storm is only great if it was forecast.”

But errors are inevitable.

“The chance of us not getting it wrong once in the six-week period, that would be unprecedented,” Dunn said.

To mitigate mistakes, forecasters should issue rapid updates and indicate their confidence level in the predictions, he said.

The Olympic weather prediction effort will leave a legacy behind?better equipping forecasters to make predictions in the Intermountain region, according to Potter.

Not only will the new weather sensors installed for the Olympics continue to provide data, but forecasters will have gained a better understanding of winter weather in complex terrain, he said.

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