Environment Spotlight

Behind the forecast, close to home

| Joanne Cole |

With a possible nor’easter bearing down on the region, what better time to chat with Andy Pohl, of the National Weather Service in Gray? 

“Winter weather is our bread and butter,” says Pohl.    

Pohl, a New Gloucester resident since 2005, is Information Technology Officer for the Gray weather office, located on the hilltop beyond Pineland and one of only two field offices in the state.  Gray’s territory includes all of New Hampshire and in Maine everything below a line from Jackman to Rockland.  Caribou picks up the northern tier and downeast.     

One of 122 offices nationwide, the Gray operation is staffed with 25 employees, 15 of whom are meteorologists who work around the clock in rotating shifts of three.  When a “special event” occurs, they’ll do “surge staffing” and put 8 or 9 meteorologists on the case.  “Weather doesn’t know what time it is,” says Pohl.

The Gray office in winter | Photo courtesy of Andy Pohl

A Nebraska native, Pohl says he “backed into a career I didn’t know I wanted.”  He joined the Air Force, worked in Omaha for Air Force Weather, and never looked back.  Pohl stayed in government service, becoming a meteorological technician for the Department of Defense and later joining the NWS, where he’s been for 22 years. 

As information technology officer in Gray, Pohl is responsible for the computers and whatever new technology comes into the office.  He also writes code.  Instead of relying on off-the-shelf software packages, he says, “We write a surprising amount of our own tools for forecasting.”  His experience and ongoing certification as a meteorologist mean not only that he understands the practical applications of the technology but can also pitch in hands-on when needed.     

Andy Pohl’s and colleagues’ pre-Covid set-up underscores the centrality of data analysis to NWS Gray’s work | Photo courtesy of Andy Pohl

According to Pohl, the mission of the NWS is “protection of life and property.”  One critical element: “We issue all the warnings”—forecasters on TV cannot—to ensure that there’s a single, dependable, consistent voice.  The Gray operation works closely with Augusta.  With the prospect of a major storm this weekend, “We’ll be on the phone with the Governor’s office,” he said, as well as with the Department of Transportation, CMP, emergency response, and other essential players. 

Ever more-sophisticated tools and forecasting models mean greater accuracy, and with that, better odds of carrying out the mission.  For instance, there’s the scraper vs. shovel question: What’s coming? rain? freezing rain? ice pellets? snow?  Thanks to upgraded radar, out go horizontal and vertical pulses that within a couple of hours can tell you—or at least can tell Andy Pohl—what’s falling.  A snowflake has a different cross-section than a raindrop, he explains: a falling raindrop takes the distinctive shape of a Hershey’s kiss.

The radar tower tops the hill near Pineland | Photo courtesy of Andy Pohl

As if forecasting weren’t complicated enough, Gray/New Gloucester sits along a 20-mile band with a 3- to 4-degree temperature change between us and the ocean.  That variance can mean the difference between perhaps-welcome snow and despised freezing rain.  Getting accurate temperatures aloft is the key there, Pohl says.  

But even with remarkable forecasting methods and technology, challenges remain.  Timing might be near the top of that list.  Increasingly, the office is providing “decision support services” for the region, Pohl says.  To determine the likely impact of a weather event, it’s critical to pin down its timing.  Several inches of snow sweeping through in the overnight hours might be a nuisance; the same storm during the morning commute is dangerous. So, for Pohl, while it’s gratifying, for example, that the office pretty much nailed the top gusts of the recent windstorm, it’s every bit as important that they got the timing right. 

To hear Pohl tell it, the forecasts and the work of the office are very much the result of a team who, like him, “eat, live, and breathe this stuff.”  One is meteorologist William Watson, also a New Gloucester resident, who grew up in Louisiana.  Watson perhaps traded hurricanes and storm surge for our blizzards, just as Pohl himself left behind Great Plains tornadoes but picked up marine forecasts and small-craft advisories here.

The local office also produces a newsletter that’s interesting and informative without daunting technicality.  It offers a glimpse of other staff who are as enthusiastic as Pohl.  Read the fall 2020 newsletter here.

NWS Gray also has a strong presence on Facebook and Twitter, but its website is in a different league altogether.  Looking toward winter, Pohl encourages folks to go beyond the forecast and take advantage of the wealth of resources at NWS Gray’s website: weather.gov/gyx  

In particular, he suggests checking out the “Briefing” icon, found by scrolling down the main weather.gov/gyx page.  The Briefing is updated twice daily, year-round, with whatever’s coming up.  It’s one of more than a dozen special topics, including climate, the recreational forecast, and much more, easily accessed via the homepage icons.   

Link to the Briefing down the home page at weather.gov/gyx

Given the time of year, Pohl also suggests marking a shortcut to the “Winter” tab on the Gray site: weather.gov/gyx/winter   There you can find just about anything you’d want to know.    

Andy Pohl and the team at NWS Gray can’t make our winter any shorter, but they’re on hand around the clock to help guide us safely through this most complicated of our seasonal relationships.