By Jim Bissett
FAIRMONT — A high technology firm just might someday be a world authority in the occasionally stormy practice of forecasting the weather. And it just might get there by using the most unlikely of vehicles. A Greyhound bus.
Specifically, a 50-bus fleet of the popular passenger line that the company has outfitted with a prototype technology that can pick up on the weather patterns that Doppler radar can’t. With U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., looking on, the company talked about the sensor technology it’s creating with the National Weather Service during an event at the I-79 Technology Park it dubbed, “Innovation Fool’s Day,” in the spirit of April 1. It’s known as the Mobile Platform Environmental Data System (MOPED), and, so far, it’s been cruising in data from the Northeast that would be the envy of any television weatherman, said Paul Heppner, who is helping oversee the project. He should know. In the 1980s and ’90s, he was the chief meteorologist for a TV station in Scranton, Pa., where he was sometimes stymied by inaccurate data or even no data at all.
“We were always limited,” he said. “There was only so much you could do with a fixed location at the airport. Sometimes, we’d have to rely on viewers calling in to tell us what the weather was doing.”
With global warming issues, and the monster storms that phenomena have produced of late, accurate real-time data has never been more critical, Heppner said.
In places like West Virginia, he said, hilly terrain means that predicting the weather is going to be a dicey affair. A sunny day to one locale could be a deluge of rain to another, he said. And conventional weather tracking tools like radar, even the Doppler kind, don’t always work when the diverse lay of Mountain State land is factored with the curvature of the Earth, he said.
“The radar beam shoots out in a straight line like this,” Heppner said, as he drew a diagram on a stray piece of paper, like, well, a television weatherman. “If you’ve got a low rain cloud in the next valley that’s three miles down the road, it could shoot right over it and not pick up anything,” he said. “That’s why it’s so difficult forecasting the weather here. You can’t always hit it right.”
And not getting it right, said Dan Berchoff, who directs science and technology operations for the National Weather Service, costs money. Lots of it. As in $41 billion. That’s how much money was lost by flight delays in 2007, he said, citing a study by the Federal Aviation Administration. Some $28 billion of that was racked up by weather-related delays, he said. Which translates into other losses, he said, especially for business travelers.
“If you’re sitting on the tarmac for 45 minutes at Atlanta, you’re not doing anything,” Berchoff said. “You’re not being productive, and the guy waiting in Chicago to get on your plane isn’t doing anything either. It’s like an accordion, or a Slinky that just stops.”
The vital “on the ground” data that the Greyhounds could pick up, he said, could streamline the delays and might even spark productivity. That would help other airlines doing the same thing carrier United does now —which is to adopt the practice of text alerts and social media messaging that would tell passengers to stay away from the airport for 2-3 hours until the flight is cleared. Some forecasts would also be critical to West Virginia and other states exploring wind turbines as alternative energy sources, he said.
“You need to know what the weather’s going to be doing over there,” he said. “Accurate weather forecasting is going to be the lifeblood of alternate energy.”
Mollohan said the technology will also help as Capitol Hill and communities across the U.S., especially those near rivers and oceans, grapple with climate change.
“We’re laying the groundwork,” he said.