David Zaff has 20 years of experience working for the National Weather Service and is the Science Operations Officer at the Buffalo Weather Forecast Office. He didn’t really know about the National Weather Service until college. David wanted the teens at the October Buffalo Niagara Teen Science Café to know they don’t have to worry about the direction of their career path. David started in physics, before transferring schools and studying atmospheric science, the physics theories behind meteorology. He lived in Arizona, Utah, Oregon, Colorado, and Massachusetts before settling in Buffalo and emphasized that careers in science can create opportunities for paid graduate school training, exploring academic institutions of different sizes, and living in different parts of the country.
David wanted the teens’ opinions on a problem the National Weather Service (NWS) is facing. NWS is a government agency that provides weather, water, and climate data, forecasts and warnings for the protection of life and property and enhancement of the national economy. Their problem is creating the most effective warnings and messaging to facilitate protection of life and property within communities on the most effective platforms.
David gave a few examples. Hurricane categories one through five are based on wind levels. Hurricane Florence, in the first two weeks of September, was a category four, but then the wind threat changed to a rain threat and the category was changed to two. Individuals on the ground in the Carolinas changed their evacuation plans because the danger was perceived to be lower.
The storm dumped three feet of water in a limited geographic area over a few short days. Teens were asked to guess the deadliest weather event in the U.S. Some guessed extreme temperatures, which is a close second to flooding. Teens agreed that separate warnings for rain and wind would be more effective to communicate the level and type of danger created by a hurricane. The NWS circulates the motto, “turn around, don’t drown,” due to the number of driving related deaths in flooded areas. Teens were asked to brainstorm mottos for other weather events.
David presented the teens with another science communication conundrum. Too many warnings. Will communities and individuals react differently to a flash flood versus a river flood warning? What about lake effect snow versus a winter storm? Each of these weather events have a meteorological definition, but how the public reacts to each is the difference between life and death.
David illustrated how communities react to blizzards versus other types of weather events where snow accumulates on the ground. Blizzards are also defined by winds: thirty-five miles per hour for at least three hours, effecting visibility at one fourth mile or less due to snow. Communities brace for blizzards that may or may not result in much snow on the ground due to high winds. Snow on the ground, like flooded roads, is dangerous, and can happen without high winds or much community preparation.
Buffalo area teens discussed how they get information about weather, what weather event warnings they react to, and how they could spread the word about what they’d learned. David left Buffalo Niagara Teen Science Café with recommendations for weather warning phone apps and his number one piece of advice: explore open doors while you’re young.