How did meteorologists forecast weather before the internet? | John Lindsey | John Lindsey

When I started to work at Diablo Canyon Power Plant back in 1991, the World Wide Web (internet) had just become publicly available. But there wasn’t a tremendous amount of oceanographic or weather data available at its infancy. Of course, that would quickly change in the years that followed.

Which leads to the question: How did you forecast weather and oceanographic conditions before the internet?

First, and I still do it today, I review the weather information from the Diablo Canyon meteorological towers. Starting in the late 1960s, Diablo Canyon has tracked and recorded wind speed and direction, temperature, precipitation and atmospheric stability. In the early ’90s, the data was recorded electronically much like today but also displayed on strip chart paper recorders.

Next, I would check the NOAA marine and waverider buoys.

In the 1990s, I used a dial-up modem — to be precise, a Hayes 9600-baud modem — to log into the Coastal Data Information Program (CDIP) at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, located in La Jolla. They specialize in wave measurement, swell modeling and forecasting.

In 1975, CDIP started with a single wave measurement station at Imperial Beach. Since then, CDIP has rapidly grown and has deployed and maintained wave measuring stations at well over 100 locations in the Western Hemisphere. The Diablo Canyon waverider buoy is part of this network that started to collect wave data in June 1983. This is one of the most extended continuous wave monitoring stations along the West Coast. You can visit their site at http://cdip.ucsd.edu/.

After that, I checked the charts. The marine weather facsimile (fax) receiver is another piece of equipment that doesn’t rely on the internet but on shore-based radio transmitters. The weather fax is primarily a means of providing weather information to ships at sea without internet access. I still have a Furuno thermal paper weather fax as a backup.

This fax machine receives and prints high-quality satellite images and surface and upper-level charts. These charts show areas of high and low pressures (storms), pressure gradients, winds and waves and the ever-important ship reports on 10-inch-wide thermal recording paper with nine gray levels.

I still have memories of the sound and smell of that little electric stylus swinging back and forth, burning its information into the thermal paper as it slowly rolled out with the charts.

According to the National Weather Service, “When displayed together and organized, the charts provide the mariner with a complete meteorological and oceanographic picture. Prudent decision-making dictates the mariner use all available information from as many sources as possible.”

Finally, I would consult with the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. meteorologists headquartered in San Francisco at the time, and the late great Rea Strange, whose name was pronounced Ray, of Pacific Weather Analysis in Santa Barbara. He had forecasted weather along the California coast for more than 50 years. He was also my mentor.

“When you see a blocking high in the Gulf of Alaska with increasing mid-latitude westerlies, watch out; it will be stormy,” he told me as we analyzed the weather charts.

That is the same type of synoptic pattern that we hope for during droughts.

“These ‘analog keys’ were used for a long time before modeling … and, honestly, they are still good,” said KSBY TV meteorologist David Hovde. In other words, they are an invaluable verification of the numerical model output.

Strange was a meteorological clairvoyant, and I used many of his techniques to forecast the weather with or without the internet.

John Lindsey is Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s Diablo Canyon Power Plant marine meteorologist and a media relations representative. Email him at pgeweather@pge.com or follow him on Twitter @PGE_John.

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