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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Alex Beam

Confessions of a weather geek

wendy wahman for the boston globe

So this was the winter that I developed a torrential man-crush on weatherman Dave Epstein, who works for Boston.com and the Portland Press Herald. The very beginning of January found me marooned on Sicily, wondering whether Alitalia would ever find a way to get me home.

I started following Epstein’s Twitter feed obsessively. Luckily, his updates dropped almost as frequently as snowflakes. Even the briefest hiatus irked me; I could barely contain my anxiety while Epstein “waited for the European weather models” to make landfall in the United States. Occasionally, Epstein had the temerity to be asleep when I needed to know if Logan’s runway 4R was snow-free.

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In the end, I needn’t have worried. Alitalia found a gap in the Jan. 2 snowstorm to deliver me home. I owe it all to Dave Epstein.

For weather addicts, I have since learned, Epstein is merely a gateway drug. Heavier users find their ways to the Weather Underground website, with its astonishing collection of professional blogs, jargon-filled patois, and occasional catfights among gifted amateurs, many of whom monitor their own PWSs, or Personal Weather Stations.

Was that a Miller A (single-path) or a Miller B (twin-path) storm that was threatening to disrupt my vacation plans? I think we’ll need to wait for the 12Z NAM run, or the EMXI model, to know for sure.

Jeff Masters, a cofounder of Weather Underground, explained that 12Z means noon at Greenwich Mean Time, now known as UTC, or Coordinated Universal Time. (The UTC is French.) NAM is the North American model, and EMXI is the European model.

Masters got his meteorology PhD in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I interrupted him amidst some titanic snow removal. “I have to hold on to the roof while I shovel the snowdrifts,” he explained. Ann Arbor has had 78 inches of snowfall this winter, almost double the usual 42 inches.

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What’s all this talk about the European model, I asked? “The European Center for Medium Range Forecasting has the best weather model in the world,” Masters said. “The quality of their four-day forecast is as good as NOAA’s [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] three-day prediction.” How come? “Their science is superior,” he explained. “It’s not just about computing power. They are just better at initializing [feeding current weather data into] their forecasts.”

Over the years, I have formulated two PWA’s, or Personal Weather Axioms. First: Weather always comes later than predicted, and lasts longer than originally forecast. Secondly, and more importantly: Weather prediction is about you (meaning me; you gather my drift) and you only.

I’m sorry that Randolph has no power, and yes it’s intriguing to watch that little cyclone wend its way toward Governor Patrick’s mansion in Richmond . . . but what’s happening in my micro-neck of the woods, please? Is that rain-snow line passing over Newton North High School? That’s the difference between my wearing snow boots or galoshes; that’s all I need to know.

Here’s another question: Who drives the man who drives the snowplow? Meaning, what geekery do weather geeks themselves plumb for reliable forecasts?

Peter Sousounis is a senior atmospheric scientist for AIR-Worldwide, a risk modeling firm in Copley Square (he was also Jeff Masters’s professor at the University of Michigan) who uses NOAA’s Global Forecast System to check the weather in his hometown of Acton. The GFS, using data culled globally, and from a National Weather Service station in Taunton, offers a generally accurate, 16-day forecast. (Big storm coming in early March, by the way.) “In the wintertime, you can get a very credible picture of what will be happening temperature-wise’,” Sousounis said.

It’s also easy to access the NWS Taunton Office web page, which is chock full of meteo-bells and whistles to while away your snowbound hours. “You’ll find enough information there to be dangerous to yourself,” Sousounis jokes — and in my case, he is right.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at alexbeam@hotmail.com.

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