How’s the weather? (6:37 a.m.)

Published 4:34 pm Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Though the sun’s not even up, Ken Lorek is wide awake.

It’s just after 6 a.m., and a thick fog makes his job of monitoring flight conditions at the National Weather Service in Calera a matter of life and death. Overnight rain caused the fog, which has restricted visibility to just a few feet.

Lorek monitors three different computer screens, rarely looking up. He knows pilots need his reports when flying into and out of Birmingham and dozens of other regional airports.

“Conditions like this can be tricky,” said Lorek, lead forecaster. “You really have to stay on top of things.”

The National Weather Service is staffed around-the-clock. At this time of day, the night shift is getting ready to go home, having worked since midnight.

But Meteorologist Jim Westland said the job never really ends.

“You have to know what’s going on and constantly brief yourself on what is happening,” said Westland. “Your shift starts at home by keeping up with the weather.”

Westland works on the long-term forecast. With just a few quick strokes on the keyboard, he can build models that display all kinds of weather phenomena — temperature, wind speed, humidity and so on.

He puts all the data together to make the most accurate forecast possible.

“The seven-day forecast is a mosaic of all the different radars put together,” said Westland.

The center is required to send out forecasts at 4 a.m. and 4 p.m. everyday. They also put up two weather balloons a day to help monitor conditions.

The NWS is also the only entity allowed by law to issue severe watches and warnings. During bad weather, the office works closely with local television and radio stations to broadcast important information to the public.