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Barometer Bob and NEXRAD in the news! :)


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The weather underground


Barometer Bob and NEXRAD are not radicals, but they are among the fervent Internet forecasters who fly under the radar of professional meteorology.


By COLETTE BANCROFT, Times Staff Writer

Published October 24, 2004




Jay Michaels is enrolled both at Brevard Community College and the University of Central Florida and hopes to study meteorology in the graduate program at Penn State.


At the height of this year's wild hurricane season, many Floridians spent so much time in front of their TV and computer screens they saw tracking maps when they closed their eyes to sleep.


For most of us, it's a seasonal behavior. But for weather enthusiasts, studying the skies is a passion.


Take Barometer Bob, who says he's been fascinated with weather "since I was knee-high to my dad."


The North Florida man runs his own elaborate Web site, Hurricane Hollow, which got 3-million hits in September. He also hosts a weekly weather radio show and teaches storm spotting and preparedness. "It's almost every moment of my time outside of work. I don't make a penny at it," he says.


Or consider NEXRAD, who lives near the John F. Kennedy Space Center on the state's east coast. When he's not attending the eight courses he's enrolled in at two colleges, he's posting detailed, professional-looking predictions on the online forums at weather.com. The 23-year-old called Hurricane Charley's right turn into Port Charlotte four days before it happened. He says, "To be honest, I'm very nervous when I'm saying something different from what the (National) Hurricane Center is saying."


Before cable television and the Internet, storm season in Florida meant tuning in to the evening news for an update from your local meteorologist, who probably used markers to draw on a map.


If you got any amateur weather forecasts, they were likely from your grandma, whose joints ached before a bad storm.


Of course, folks did their own forecasting for centuries, and some of them were pretty good at it. Dick Fletcher, chief meteorologist at WTSP-Ch. 10, says, "Farmers 100 years ago used to do this, because their livelihood depended on watching the sky. People used to spend a lot of time doing that.


"These days people don't spend as much time looking up as they used to."


For "weather junkies," looking up is old school. They look to the Internet for radar and satellite imagery, computer models of storms and many other high-tech resources.


Much of this information is available to everyone. Commercial Web sites such as Intellicast.com, AccuWeather.com and weather.com, offered by the Weather Channel, are aimed at consumers, who may demand a lot of information but want professionals to compile and analyze it for them.


Weather junkies are a whole different animal.


For them, the National Weather Service's sites are a place to start, a dizzying array of maps, forecasts, radar, satellite pictures, warnings and discussion.


Those sites are the official word, but there are thousands upon thousands of other sites that revolve around weather. Researchers at colleges and universities, governments around the world, companies that develop weather software and other products - it's all out there.


Weather enthusiasts range from retired meteorologists to self-taught amateurs, and the Web has given them a world of resources and a place to create a community.


Barometer Bob's real name is Robert Brookens. He lives in Macclenny, a town of about 5,000 in northeast Florida, not far from the Georgia border.


Brookens, 46, has lived in Florida most of his life. An avid angler, he says he started doing his own weather forecasting in the 1970s. But what really galvanized him was Hurricane Andrew.


Brookens was living in Hollywood in August 1992, when the storm barreled into a poorly prepared southeast Florida. "I saw it during Andrew: complacency. I told all my friends and family to prepare for a hurricane."


But many people didn't. Andrew killed 23 people and did more than $26-billion in damage. Brookens' friends and family started to listen. "Now whenever there's a little spin in the Atlantic, the phones ring off the hook."


Brookens, an associate member of the American Meteorological Society, is largely self-taught. "Mainly what I know is just from reading, though it's gotten to the point that I don't have time to read anymore."


He got his first computer in 1994. "I saw the invaluable amounts of weather information on the Internet, and it just steamrollered."


Brookens began posting to forums through Skywarn, the program for the National Weather Service's volunteer storm spotters. On those forums, weather enthusiasts chat about spotting, predicting and chasing severe weather. "People started telling me, "Bob, you have to make your own Web site.' So I learned how to do it."


He works at a Winn-Dixie distribution center in Jacksonville, but his real love is running Hurricane Hollow and its auxiliary Web sites and doing his radio show every Thursday night at 9 (the show is broadcast on the Internet at Radio.NHCWX.com and through the Barometer Bob site). Brookens also contributes live coverage during storms to radio stations in Louisiana and Kentucky and volunteers with the Emergency Operations Center in Baker County.


"It's a lot of work. But I hear from people around the world. I hear from folks in Iraq and Kuwait all the time." He gets calls and e-mails from Iceland and Germany, as well as from countless Floridians. On Sept. 2, two days before Hurricane Frances made landfall, his site got 207,000 hits.


Not everyone pays as much attention to weather forecasts as Barometer Bob, even at his house. Just before Hurricane Jeanne hit, he says, "My wife is watching TV on Saturday and she says, "It's not going to affect us. See the line?'


"I say, "Wait a minute. See the big gray mass around the line? Everything under that is going to be affected.' "


His two daughters, he says, are more interested. "My 9-year-old said, "Look, Dad, there's feeder bands.' She wants to be a meteorologist."


Brookens says he would like to parlay his Barometer Bob persona into a full-time career. He has taught many classes in storm spotting and preparedness, and he would like to connect with one of the major hardware chains to conduct seminars at their stores.


"Weather enthusiasts are better prepared than anybody else because they've taken the time to inform themselves," he says.


Brookens says he is proud of his record in predicting weather. "My seasonal predictions have done pretty good. I'm only off by two storms. On April 1, I made my predictions. On April 2, Dr. Gray made his, and he had the same number of storms I had."


Brookens and William Gray, the head of the Tropical Project at Colorado State University, each predicted 14 named tropical cyclones, eight of those hurricanes and three of them major hurricanes (Category 3, 4 or 5). They also predicted an above-average hurricane season for Florida. In October, Gray's update noted "an unusual season of unprecedented Florida landfall events and intense long-lived tropical cyclones - the large number of major hurricanes (six) was not anticipated."


Brookens emphasizes on his site that his forecasts are not official, and that people should not base life-or-death decisions on them. It bothers him, he says, when other sites don't make that clear.


"When we get amateur Web sites posting official-looking forecasts, that's a problem. The National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center are the only ones.


"I make scenarios. I really can't place forecasts."


Fletcher at WTSP says some weather enthusiasts go too far in making their predictions. "With the Internet, there's a lot of information out there. But it may not be all the information. Forecasters have access to things they don't."


He says amateur forecasters should ask themselves, "Do you have all the information, do you have the education and the experience to understand it? And the third step is, do you have all the tools to decide how (a weather situation) will change?"


Sometimes the amateurs predict correctly, Fletcher says, but "I'm pretty sure my job security is all right."


Of course, some of the amateurs hope to become pros. NEXRAD is one of those. Jay Michaels was a teenager when his family moved from Massachusetts to Florida in 1995. "A few weeks after we moved down, Hurricane Erin hit Vero Beach as a Category 1. I'd never seen anything like it."


The next year, he volunteered as a storm spotter with the National Weather Service office in Melbourne. Soon he had talked his way into an "informal weekend internship" at the office and was winning honors for school projects based on research into Doppler radar and thunderstorm prediction.


Michaels is enrolled both at Brevard Community College, where he is completing his second associate's degree, in chemical technology, and the University of Central Florida, where he's working on a bachelor's degree in psychology.


He expects to graduate from both in the spring, if he enrolls in 10 courses that semester. "I really want to get to grad school," he hopes in the meteorology program at Penn State.


Michaels began posting weather comments and analysis in 1999. He ran his own Web site for a while, but it took too much time. "I mainly stay with the Weather Channel forums."


He analyzes data and models at dozens of sites to create his forecasts, which are highly detailed and rife with acronyms like RUC/2 and NEXRAD (Next Generation Radar), from which he borrowed his screen name.


The storm he did best at predicting, he says, was Hurricane Charley. He predicted it would make landfall in Charlotte County four days before, then wavered. "But the day before the storm, I was seeing warmer temperatures in South Florida and cooler ones in North Florida. It was setting up a really strong path from Port Charlotte across to Daytona. I was seeing the landfall significantly south of what the Hurricane Center was predicting." Like Brookens, Michaels says he is careful to remind readers that he's an amateur. "I always emphasize it's not an official forecast. It's somewhat of a challenging game.


"I've had enough experience that I know the lingo, and my forecasts look really professional. A day or so before a storm, I start to send people directly to the National Weather Service."


And he isn't always right. "We've all been humbled by hurricanes. We eat forecast crow. Even the professionals can be wrong."


Michaels says he enjoys the camaraderie of weather forums, where weather enthusiasts learn from each other, sometimes by disagreeing. "But it's all in good fun."


He plans to get a graduate degree in mathematics as well as meteorology. "What I really want to do with meteorology is research." He's excited right now about numerical models and something called gravity waves, which may affect severe weather.


Just what are they? "As far as I can tell, we're not 100 percent certain what they are."


In the meantime, he says, "I don't think Florida is going to have any more hurricanes this year.


Even for a weather junkie, that's good news at this point. "It gets exhausting. I enjoy the meteorology and the forecasting, but after this many it's just too much."


- Colette Bancroft can be reached at 727 893-8435 or bancroft@sptimes.com

Weather on the Web




Weather junkie Bob Brookens' main site, with his storm predictions, radio show and storm preparedness tips, as well as links to dozens of other weather sites, government sites, forecast models, satellite images and more.

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