GRAND FORKS — Ryan Knutsvig gestured to a satellite image of an ominous storm system cruising westward through North Dakota. Large tracts of orange, yellow and red indicated where it was most severe.
“Do I have a volunteer for someone who might want to issue a tornado warning for us?” he asked a conference room’s worth of people in the National Weather Service’s Grand Forks office, where staff had organized an open house Saturday, Sept. 28. Sixteen-year-old Dylan Palach’s hand popped up.
Knutsvig, the office’s meteorologist in charge, helped Palach draw a box around the image of the storm and navigate a series of computer menus that would issue the warning via radio stations, TV stations and even cellphones inside the area Palach had drawn. Knutsvig played a YouTube video that approximated the warning that would have gone out, fielded a question or two, and then helped usher the roomful of people into the office’s control center for the next part of their tour.
The service’s Grand Forks office is one of 122 in the United States or its territorial holdings, and together they form a wide-ranging network of sensors and analysts whose stated mission is to “provide weather, water and climate information to protect life and property and enhance the national economy.” The Grand Forks office employs 25 people: mostly forecasters who track weather, work to warn people when that weather could be dangerous and put together forecasts.
At the edge of a field behind the office, Warning Coordination Meteorologist Greg Gust pointed out the different devices the service uses to measure rainfall, snowfall, wind and more.
“When it snows around here, how many times does the snow just sit there?” Gust asked.
People in the tour group chuckled. Service staff use a “snow board” that doesn’t allow snow to melt immediately like it might on pavement, and that helps them take more accurate readings when wind might otherwise make measurements more difficult.
“Typically, in a day that it’s snowing, we would come out here every six hours, clean off the board, move it up on top of the snow, but measure what’s on that board,” Gust explained. “Sometimes we have to measure what’s on top of the cars, and the picnic table, and a few other places.”
Other office staff gave kids an idea of how a rain gauge works by encouraging them to toss a water balloon at a spiked board. Water from the balloon would splash down into the gauge. Eight-year-old Emma Peters’ first two throws sailed high, but her third was a direct hit — a quarter-inch of water ended up in the gauge.
But it wasn’t just NWS staff who set up shop at the open house. A pair of airmen from Grand Forks Air Force Base showed a weather detection system the U.S. military uses in other countries and a representative from the Salvation Army doled out snacks in a facsimile of what they’d do in a real weather emergency. People from KNOX radio, the University of North Dakota’s Geography and Geographic Information Science, and North Dakota State University’s Emergency Management program were also on hand.
Knutsvig said the open house is, in part, intended to let young people know they can be part of a scientific field that helps people every day, make decisions, and stay safe.
“The Weather Service is — it’s not ours. It’s the people’s weather service,” Knutsvig said. “I think it’s important to open the doors, to let people know how we do things.”