The stillness of the air is nearly unnerving. The only sound to ripple across the silence is the occasional chirp of a bird. They too seem agitated, flitting this way and that against the backdrop of an unbroken blue sky.
It's been a gorgeous spring day in Western Kentucky, but something menacing grows on the horizon. Approaching the Mississippi river from the west is a massive storm system. The contrast in the sky is stark as a blanket of menacing clouds make their way into Ballard County.
In the National Weather service office at Paducah, teams of meteorologists pour over information about the oncoming storm. They've seen the potential for days, warned the public with watches, and now the hour is near. Some of the NWS staff are glued to radar images, noting every change and movement as the front approaches. Others communicate with local emergency management officials and trained storm spotters. The team is in place, and they have one goal: saving the lives of those in the storm's path.
"People here make life and death decisions," says Pat Spoden, Science and Operations Officer at the Paducah NWS office. "When you issue a tornado warning, you are saying something very significant. During those times, our staffing is increased, and we'll divide our 58-county area among those in the office. Smaller teams will be dedicated to watching out for the people in one specific area.
"Then we watch for specific threats and decide if a warning needs to be issued. From beginning to end, we can get a warning out in ten to twenty seconds. The question we have to ask is when do you do that. We don't want false alarms, of course. So we do a lot of training on that. We have to be ready to react. We want to do our best for the people and walk out of here feeling good about what we did."
While the science of observing and predicting weather is far beyond the technology at hand in 1870 when the National Weather Service began as the Weather Bureau, the mission is still the same. More than a century ago, observers used telegraph and marine signals to communicate the approach and force of storms.
Today, forecasters have a plethora of technology at their fingertips to let them see what is going on around the world as well as for miles and miles up into the atmosphere. "It's mostly all electronics and computers now," says Shane Luecke, Electronics Systems Analyst. "When I started, I was working on radars that had vacuum tubes. Those days are gone with all the digital systems we have now."
The NWS office in Paducah has rack after rack of transmitters, receivers, data analyzing computers, and much more. While it seems like a ton of equipment, Shane says it is nothing like what it used to be. "We used to have a lot more to keep up with. But it keeps getting more and more streamlined. We may have a little box that used to do what a whole rack of equipment once did." And most everything has a backup. Several pieces of equipment have up to three backup components. The job is too important to not have such redundancy.
"All of this has made us better at predicting and observing weather," says Pat Spoden, "but it is still not a precise science. Our five-day forecast is as good as our three-day forecast was ten years ago, so we are getting better. Individual variables and details are the most difficult. We can see something coming, but details are often hard to pin down."
The forecasters' biggest challenge when it comes to predictions is usually winter weather. "It is the worst," laughs Pat. "Snow amounts vary with the temps in the atmosphere. Just one degree makes a difference. I'm not talking about just at the surface but at 5,000 feet up there where we have no direct measurements. And no one really knows exactly how the atmosphere works.
"We have to rely on computer models, and different physics go into different models. There is a lot of analysis. And all of this is really new. Computer modeling didn't get going until the 70's, and even by the 80's, the technology was nothing compared to now. Looking back, I'm amazed that we could really do anything! Now there is so much information, it's like drinking out of a fire hose!"
Even though computer models and automated technological processes play a large part in the NWS, the art comes from the analysis and critical thinking of the staff. "Our goal is to be right. Nobody is bothered more if we miss something than we are. It is really rare to find more dedicated people than those here. We call ourselves weather weenies! It is simply a lifelong passion, not a job."
That is what is most impressive about the staff at the NWS office in Paducah. They don't see it as a job. There is a dedication and devotion that springs from each person's curiosity and fervor for all things weather related. They strive to be right and serve the public, local media, emergency management officers, and all the other partners who rely on the information they give day in and day out. "We are always looking at how we do things and how we can improve," adds Pat. "We strive to get better so we can serve those who depend on what we do."