Weather data does double duty

Posted: Thursday, July 15, 2010

While some residents disdain Juneau's harsh, unpredictable weather, others are nearly obsessed with it. For those, there's nothing better than real-time data to get a fix.

A university program that teaches students how to collect weather data by assembling, setting up and maintaining weather stations has become a favorite of many local weather nuts who benefit from the information, which is available on the Internet.

For years, die-hard skiers have started their winter mornings by clicking into the site with Eaglecrest Ski Area information to check for base-area temperatures and snow depths.

But additional stations, at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center and on the Lemon and Mendenhall Glaciers, provide even more data for the public. Two more stations are in the works at Snettisham and on Mount Roberts.

The information is not just used by outdoor recreationists. Some local businesses base part of their operations on data collected by the weather stations.

Eran Hood, an associate professor of environmental science at the University of Alaska Southeast, built and installed the Eaglecrest station with students and former university professor Matt Heavner about seven years ago. Hood, who receives calls when the stations or websites are not functioning, said he is frequently surprised by the number of people interested in the information.

"I've had people e-mail me from Whitehorse and say they watch that website and decide when to come to Juneau to ski," he said.

Student Nick Korzen, who is majoring in geography environmental resources, builds, installs and maintains the weather stations at his university job.

Talking with him, you get the sense the equipment is persnickety. Then again, it could just be the harsh climate.

"The first year we had a lot of trouble keeping our stations running because of solar," Korzen said.

Turns out there's not enough solar in Southeast to power much, so Korzen had to reconfigure the system's power management. He also learned to deal with rime ice and the force of the wind, which on several occasions knocked down entire stations.

"The hardest part is dealing with the elements and getting the stations prepared to deal with the elements," he said.

The stations not only provide the community valuable information, but students running them are learning skills they will use in their careers.

The experience even helps students get jobs.

Korzen already has a temporary position with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Former UAS student Dominic Shallies credits his experience working on the weather stations for getting hired at SLR, formerly known as Hoefler Consulting Group. The 2005 graduate is now a staff scientist for the Anchorage-based environmental consulting company.

"It was great to be able to put on my résumé," he said. "I had direct experience with some of the exact instrumentation we use at SLR. It's pretty much what landed me the job."

A three-year NASA grant helped fund research, including the weather stations, under a project called SEAMONSTER, but that funding source ended. The university chancellor's special project fund and NOAA grants now help pay to run the stations.

A single site costs about $10,000, and annual maintenance runs up to $15,000. The Snettisham station will be partially funded by the Alaska Electric Light & Power Co., which will use the information to do avalanche control work in the area.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or kim.marquis@

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