Here comes the sun: Meteorology student wants to clear up cloudy forcast

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Meteorology major Matt Taraldsen

Meteorology major Matt Taraldsen consults department weather maps to track severe weather.

Junior meteorology major Matt Taraldsen believes a severe weather forecast should be more than accurate. It also should leave potential victims with a clear picture of the practical impact it might have on their lives and property.

“You only have so much wiggle room in writing an official weather forecast, but a few well-formed sentences can make all the difference,” Taraldsen said. “People don’t pay attention to these warnings. We have to get through to them, to tell them if a blizzard we say is shutting down a city will mean fire and police services are not going to be available. We have to let them know if travel will be life-threatening.”

Taraldsen, who has volunteered the past two summers at the National Weather Service in his hometown of Duluth, is working to help severe weather forecasting evolve into a more user-friendly science. For his senior project he developed a “Post-Storm Survey” to help bridge the gap between weather forecasters and consumers. It’s a short, simple online survey that is being tested after storms that occur this winter in Duluth, St. Cloud and Minneapolis/St. Paul.

During the test period, a link to the Post-Storm Survey is posted on various Web sites that offer weather information, including regional weather service forecast offices in Duluth, Chanhassen, Grand Forks, Des Moines, Sioux Falls, S.D., and LaCrosse, Wis., as well as Minnesota state climatologist and Minnesota state emergency response Web sites. The Star Tribune includes an information box about the survey in every storm story it does this winter, and the Minnesota Department of Homeland Security/Emergency Management has a permanent link to the Survey in its Web site.

Taraldsen’s survey is aimed at creating a process to evaluate the decisions and actions taken in response to information about a “high-impact” weather situation, defined as one requiring the issuance of a warning by the National Weather Service. The St. Cloud State Communication Studies Department and his academic advisor, meteorology Professor Anthony Hansen, helped him create the survey format and questions. Associate Professor Suzanne Stangl-Erkens also advised Taraldsen on his survey questions as well as his project proposal.

National Weather Service forecaster Amanda Brandt Graining ’04

National Weather Service forecaster Amanda Brandt Graining ’04, Duluth, worked with Taraldsen on his storm survey project.

Taraldsen’s willing mentor in his project has been National Weather Service forecaster Amanda Brandt Graning ’04, Duluth, who for some time had been considering how she and her colleagues – the other “weather geeks” – could do a better job of communicating the implications of severe weather.

Graning had attended a workshop on integrating weather and society that changed how she viewed her career. “The following winter was particularly active, and as we were writing the weather warnings, I found I was thinking in an entirely different way than my colleagues,” she said. “When Matt came into this office as a volunteer, I brought it up to him, and you could just see it click immediately. He totally understood it. He has a passion for weather.”

Taraldsen believes all students should pursue a field they’re passionate about. While some of his fellow meteorology majors want to become broadcast meteorologists, his goal is to work behind the scenes at the National Weather Service, forecasting and helping people, he said. “Mother Nature’s always one step ahead of you, and it’s a challenge to keep up.”

Last year Taraldsen served as a mentor for first-year meteorology students. “You have to like science, and there’s a lot of math in meteorology,” he said. “When they hit these classes, a lot of students are scared off.”

Graning, who also discovered her enthusiasm for weather forecasting early and worked at the Twin Cities National Weather Service office while a student at St. Cloud State, has been presenting information about Taraldsen’s project at National Weather Service winter storm conferences and regional media weather workshops. She’s pleased the project is getting attention. “The idea of getting Matt to run this project was crucial,” she said. “All the stars aligned on this one.”

- Marsha Shoemaker

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