Forecasters say Misawa weather some of the toughest to predict
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Capt. Stephen Barlow has tracked typhoons from Hawaii, called for sunshine in Seattle and predicted monsoons in Seoul.
But the longtime Air Force meteorologist says forecasting Misawa weather is his most challenging assignment to date.
“I think it’s probably the toughest place I’ve been in 20 years,” he said.
Some base residents call local meteorologists “weather guessers.”
Like most meteorologists, Barlow, commander of the 35th Operations Support Squadron’s weather flight and his eight forecasters are sometimes off the mark.
“My first year here, I was on the radio and I told everybody that we were going to get a foot of snow,” said Staff Sgt. Patrick Gray, a forecaster.
“Ripsaw got it,” he said, referring to the training range for fighter pilots north of of the base. “We didn’t get a cloud in the sky all weekend long. We heard about it Monday.”
Added Barlow: “Wherever you are, weather forecasters get ribbed. We enjoy forecasting weather, and we try our best. But just so people know, it’s not easy to forecast from Misawa.”
Air Force forecasters provide weather information to Misawa’s base population and F-16 fighter crews, their primary audience.
Each season here can be challenging for the Misawa weathermen, but winter and its sometimes endless barrage of snow is especially tricky.
Misawa receives an annual average of 125 inches of snowfall.
Much of that can be attributed to what Barlow calls the “lake-effect” — in this case, however, the “lake,” is the Sea of Japan to the west.
“It’s analogous to Buffalo [N.Y.],” Barlow said.
“Lake-effect” snow reaching Misawa starts with bitter Siberian cold air surging across the Sea of Japan.
Cold air over warmer water is an unstable mix, producing cloud bands that usually bring precipitation, forecasters say. The wind then carries those bands over northern Japan.
Often, the system is broken up by the Hakkoda mountains to the west; Misawa may get two to four inches of snow while neighbors such as the cities of Akita and Aomori on the either side of the divide get dumped on, Barlow said.
Annual snowfall figures for Akita and Aomori were not immediately available Wednesday.
Clouds reaching Misawa often drop plenty of snow: It typically snows 25 days in January, Barlow said.
Several factors make snow here difficult to predict.
Cloud bands are usually a narrow 5 to 10 miles wide, Barlow said. A sudden wind direction shift can mean sun for the main part of base and snow for Misawa’s north residents on the far side of the runway.
Forecasters use many tools to predict weather, but they’re limited.
For example, they don’t have their own radar. Instead, they refer to a television screen in their office that relays information from Japan Air Self-Defense Forces’ conventional radar.
JASDF meteorologists forecast weather for Japanese fighter pilots here.
If the weather flight wants specific information from the radar screen, they have to go talk to JASDF, Barlow said.
Twice daily, JASDF provides the Air Force with data from a radiosonde balloon measuring temperature, humidity, wind pressure and dew point vertically up to about 50,000 feet.
Barlow is working a proposal for a $1.2 million Doppler radar, the standard for weather stations in the United States, he said.
With Doppler, forecasters here could gauge detailed weather data nearly instantaneously.
“We could see if snow bands were weakening or strengthening, which way a storm is tracking,” Barlow said. “We could see when the wind direction was more favorable for pushing snow over Misawa.”
The frequency used for the Doppler radar, however, would first have to be approved by the government of Japan, Barlow said. The only U.S.-owned Doppler radar in mainland Japan is operated by the Navy in Kanagawa prefecture.
Bounded on two sides by water — the Sea of Japan and Pacific Ocean — Misawa lacks surface observation points, which makes weather forecasts challenging, Barlow said.
“Without observation points upstream, it makes it harder to tell what’s coming,” he said.
Consequently, forecasters here rely on satellite data, which shows the tops of clouds but not what’s under them, Barlow said.
“You don’t know what’s coming until it moves into the radar area, which is usually about 200 miles [away],” he said.
“It’s like being in the desert, you don’t have any data,” Gray added
Despite challenges of being a Misawa forecaster, Gray is happy right where he is.
“I had a choice of coming here or Edwards Air Force Base in California,” he said. “I chose here because it’s tough. The harder the weather, the easier it is to learn your job.”