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Extracting Visibility Information from Weather Cameras

Deriving visibility information from weather cameras has been in the works for several years—and you may be in a position to help determine if it is ready for prime time.  The Visibility Estimation through Image Analytics (VEIA) Program looks at FAA weather camera images and derives an estimate of the visibility using an automated comparison to clear day images.  The FAA will be evaluating this product starting in April 2021.  They are looking for Alaskan pilots willing to help with the analysis by looking at the camera-derived visibility, examining observations and completing a questionnaire.  If successful, this program could significantly expand the number of locations across the state where visibility information is provided to the aviation community.

Background
The FAA Weather Camera Program is very popular–used by pilots, FAA Flight Service Station staff, National Weather Service forecasters, and just about anyone else interested in current weather conditions and trends.  The capability was first operationally demonstrated by a University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student’s PhD thesis project, by installing camera stations at Anaktuvuk Pass, Kaltag, and Ruby.  The demonstration was supposed to run from April through October of 1999.  Subsequently the FAA took over those three camera sites and, through several twists and turns, ramped up to the statewide operational network found in Alaska today.  There are currently over 230 camera locations, typically comprising three or four cameras per site.  The system also hosts camera data from the extensive Canadian network of stations and has integrated 13 Colorado weather cameras into the FAA Weather Camera Program through a partnership with the Colorado Division of Aeronautics.  Building on the success of the program in Alaska, the FAA is also installing 23 cameras along popular flight routes in Hawaii to enhance aviation safety and pilot decision-making.

With images updated every ten minutes and distributed through the program website, pilots may look at locations along routes they intend to fly to see if conditions are suitable for VFR operations, using this supplementary source of data.  By viewing images over the previous few hours, one can also look at recent trends in weather conditions.  Even more information is available in locations where camera sites are collocated with AWOS or ASOS stations, as this data is displayed along with the camera views. This gives the user the benefit of both visual images as well as current conditions in a textual (METAR) format as sources of information to consider in making flight planning assessments.  An example of this type of display is seen in the accompanying illustration from Ketchikan International Airport (PAKT).  But there are far fewer AWOS and ASOS stations in Alaska than weather cameras — so can we derive more quantitative weather information from the camera data itself?

FAA Weather Camera Display and current METAR. The display of weather camera observations at Ketchikan, where cameras looking in four directions show conditions and may be compared against an annotated clear day image.

Extracting Visibility from WeatherCams
A variety of techniques have been explored to derive visibility estimates from weather camera observations, including image processing and crowdsourcing techniques.  For several years FAA-funded research has been underway at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory to use image processing techniques to derive visibility from weather camera data.  Images from approximately 10 days of observations are used to develop a “best” clear day composite image. New images from the cameras are then compared with the composite image. An edge detection algorithm, using a ratio technique, is used to estimate visibility in statute miles.  The results are presented via website along with the trend showing potential changes over a maximum of six hours.  An example of the output from VEIA is shown with the weather camera views in the illustration from the Seward Airport (PAWD).  This technique only works during the day when there is adequate illumination to create suitable images, so no information is derived by VEIA during hours of darkness.

FAA Weather Camera Display and Camera Derived Visibility Estimates. This display includes weather camera observations at Seward, where cameras also look in four directions to show condition, and may be compared against an annotated clear day image. The visibility estimates are presented to the user to show the most current estimate of visibility and the visibility trends at a given location.

How can you help?
This spring, the FAA’s Aviation Weather Demonstration and Evaluation Services team will be evaluating the VEIA product.  The team is looking for a cross-section of individual end-users to actively examine and evaluate the experimental data.

The evaluation will be conducted between April and June 2021.  Participants will be provided individual accounts to access products and provided with training materials to understand the VEIA capabilities and functionality.  All participants are asked to use the VEIA system and participate in two virtual meetings to provide feedback to the evaluation team.  At the end of the assessment, each participant is expected to complete a final questionnaire.  Please consider participating in this cutting-edge research to expand weather reporting capabilities at weather camera sites and develop additional sources of weather information for pilots, dispatchers, meteorologists, and Flight Service Specialists in Alaska.  If you fit into one of the following categories and would like to participate, use the registration links below to sign up:

VEIA Registration links:

Pilot:  https://forms.gle/cZLychGHER9fgeuk9

Dispatcher:  https://forms.gle/x5UMCYBtUXxNhdJT7

Meteorologist:  https://forms.gle/VFewc2bnucnxoEfCA

FAA Flight Services:  https://forms.gle/7MQWDHdfbZkHuxmcA

If you have questions or need more information, please contact Jill Miller at [email protected] or call 609-412-9080 (east coast time zone).

If you are already a user of the FAA Weather Camera System, please consider devoting a few hours of your time to evaluate this new product, which has the potential to significantly expand the network of locations reporting visibility in Alaska.  If this technique proves to be successful, it will be a significant advancement for the network of reporting points in Alaska and a momentous innovation in extracting supplementary information from weather cameras.

 

[This article was originally published in the April-June 2021 issue of the Alaska Airmen’s Association newsletter,  The Transponder.]

Automated local airport aviation forecasts for Alaskan communities

The National Weather Service (NWS) has fielded an experimental aviation weather product for many Alaska communities that lack a Terminal Area Forecast (TAF).  It represents the latest step in helping pilots anticipate local weather conditions before they fly. The Alaska Aviation Guidance (AAG) product takes the current conditions and applies a model to predict how conditions will change over the next six hours.

A state-wide display of the 61 airports where the AAG product is available, color coded for the predicted weather category (VFR, MVFR, IFR, LIFR).

 What does this mean for Alaska?
Today NWS only issues 39 TAFs for airports across the state—an area one fifth the size of the continental US.  Adding this new experimental product that covers 61 additional airports greatly increases a pilot’s ability to anticipate weather in the immediate vicinity of those locations.  An overall display of the state includes a graphic depiction, color coded for the major flight conditions categories (VFR, marginal VFR, IFR and low IFR), providing a synoptic awareness of conditions over larger areas.

What’s different?
Unlike a TAF, that covers a twenty-four-hour period, these forecasts only project conditions for the next six hours. They are updated each hour, however, to give a fresh look ahead—while TAFs are only routinely updated four times a day.  The product describes the elements pilots most care about; ceiling, visibility, wind and weather.  If conditions are expected to be stable during the next six hours, a single set of elements will be provided, however if change is expected, the guidance will break the time into finer segments. The results are also displayed in an easy to read decoded fashion.

A sample forecast, broken down into time blocks when conditions are expected to change.

Pilots should be aware of some limitations.  This product is completely automated, with no oversight or input from a human forecaster.  And while it covers the key elements we most care about, it does not forecast conditions such as localized convective activity, blowing snow or smoke during fire season.

How can pilots use the product?
Unlike the TAF, which is the staple for IFR operations, the AAG is intended for VFR use only.  On March 25th,  FAA Flight Standards released an InFO sheet that describes how it may be used for flights conducted under different operating regulations, with some limitations.  NWS also cautions us that this is not monitored on a 24 hour basis and may experience outages. AAG should be used in conjunction with all other weather forecasts (such as SIGMETs, AIRMET, Area Forecasts, etc) to best inform pilots of the expected weather conditions.

Where do I find it?
The AAG is an online product found at: https://www.weather.gov/arh/aag. Users will also find an FAQ with additional information, a link to the FAA InFO document and to a user survey.  Please use this product as you fly this summer. The experimental period currently runs to October 16. What happens after that may be influenced by your feedback!

More on Alaska weather developments
On April 8th, the National Weather Service organized a webinar which featured information from the FAA describing plans to deploy a Visual Weather Observing System in Alaska, on a test basis.  To learn more about this project, slated to start this summer, check out the Alaska Aviation Weather Update Webinar.

Help bring new Aviation Icing Products to Alaska

New weather products have been developed to diagnose and forecast inflight icing for Alaska.  Staff from the FAA’s Aviation Weather Demonstration and Evaluation (AWDE) Services Program will be in Alaska, October 16-19, and would like to talk with pilots to help determine how these new products will work in the Alaskan environment.  The information they gather from pilots (General Aviation, Air Taxi and Commercial (Part 121/135), Air Ambulance/Helicopter Emergency Medical Services) will enable FAA to assess the utility and suitability in our operational setting.

Background
Forecasting icing has long been a challenge in Alaska, with our complex terrain, large size, and extremely limited network of surface observations.  Over the past few years research sponsored by the FAA Aviation Weather Program, and conducted by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), has led to development of an Icing Product Alaska-Diagnosis (IAP-D) and an IPA-Forecast (IAP-F) product. These are intended to improve diagnosis and forecasting of icing probability, severity, and probability of super-cooled large droplet (SLD) formation. These products, once validated, are expected to support decision making regarding the areas icing will occur, and the identification of optimum routes for air traffic.

How you can help
The FAA evaluation team will be in these communities on the following dates:

Anchorage, Oct 16-18
Fairbanks, October 18
Juneau, October 19

They would like to understand how these new icing products would be used operationally, learn about pilot strategies for making go-no-go decisions, user risk thresholds and generally assess the overall suitability of the new products.   Pilots should expect to spend about an hour in an interview with a team member.  If you are able to help with this program, you may “sign up” through an online survey.

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/ZT3ZPSD

For more information, contact Sonia Alvidrez [email protected] or 609-485-7613.

Upgraded weather web tools for Alaska pilots

Our ability to access weather data for pilots in Alaska continues to evolve.  Recently both the National Weather Service and the FAA have released new operational versions of their websites for Alaska weather.  They are both well worth a closer look.

Alaska Aviation Weather Unit’s New Look
For years the NWS Alaska Aviation Weather Unit (AAWU) has provided an excellent website with a combination of current and forecast weather products specifically for Alaska aviators.  It just got a new look, to increase security and migrate to a nationally supported server. While you will recognize most of the products, the home page has a different look, and increased functionality.

The main page on the new AAWU site has controls to toggle Airmets, TAFs and/or PIREPs.

The home page uses a new base map, and offers increased functionality without having to dig into the menu structure.  Not only is it a zoomable map base, but one can now toggle on (and off) Airmets, Terminal Area Forecasts and/or display PIREPs.  TAFs sites are color coded by weather category. You may also display and filter pilot reports, to look up to 24 hours into the past for trend information. New features to watch for include adding METARs to the user choices on the front page, and updated winds aloft graphics. Also explore the tiled quick links at the bottom of the homepage.

In this screen shot above, PIREPs for the past three hours are displayed. They also include a text list of the PIREPs for the selected time block at the bottom of the page, in case you want to browse them in that form.

The old site will continue to run in parallel with the new site until June 20, 2017, but start using the new site today at: weather.gov/aawu.  As with any site that is developing, you may need to let the National Weather Service know if you have problems, or questions.  Direct those to: [email protected].

New FAA Weather Camera site goes operational
By all accounts, the Aviation Weather Camera Program is the most popular thing the FAA has done in many years.  After months of development and testing, it too has a new look, web address and loads of new functionality.  Thanks to many of you who participated in the recent beta-testing activity, the FAA made significant upgrades and declared the new site operational as of May 1st.

More current and forecast weather information has been added to the site.

While the FAA will continue to operate the old site in parallel for a while, you should note the new address:  avcamsplus.faa.gov. The major changes have to do with the presentation of current and forecast weather in graphic form, on the map page.  If zoomed in far enough, airports that have reported weather and terminal area forecasts will give reveal conditions at a glance, before even selecting and reading the full text reports.

METARs, TAFs and PIREPs are visually presented, with an idea of the trend presented graphically.

Other new features include an increased selection of base maps to choose from, including Sectionals, IFR charts or a terrain enhanced display.  Note, however, that several the menu selection choices are not active. There is more development ahead, making it very important that you remember to take the Pilot Survey that is linked from the hope page. Also note that this version of the program is not optimized for tablets or smart phones. Those devices are to be incorporated in future releases.

Exercise them!
Both of the NWS and FAA tools are coming out just as the flying season ramps up. Please take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with them before taking off this summer. And keep your comments rolling in to drive improvements in the months ahead!

Aviation Weather Camera Site upgraded: Beta testers wanted!

FAA is making a significant upgrade to their Alaska Aviation Weather Camera website.  Pilots are invited to test the site, and provide input to help refine the presentation of aviation weather data that will eventually be extended nation-wide.   A Beta-test version of the site is currently available. It integrates camera images with weather observations, forecasts and pilot reports, customized for aviation. The Aviation Weather Camera program is seeking feedback from pilots both in Alaska, and from across the country.

Background
Aviation weather cameras have helped Alaskan pilots make flight planning decisions since 1999.  Starting with prototype system constructed by a university graduate student that included only three camera locations, the network today lets pilots see the weather at over 220 locations from all parts of the state.  This visual form of weather data helps in several ways.  Each site has between two and four cameras, pointed in different directions, to let us see the weather, within the last 10 minutes.  In some places, the cameras are the sole source of weather information. At other locations they are co-located with an AWOS or ASOS, and give us a means not only to evaluate the accuracy of the METAR–but to see if the reported ceiling is comprised of threatening cumulus buildups, or just a thin layer of clouds with sunlight streaming through.

Initially the website was limited to the current camera image, along with a “clear day” image for comparison.  To help calibrate what we were seeing, the clear day image was annotated with the distance and elevation of prominent landmarks.  The site also featured a video loop that allowed the user to play a time-lapse of the past six hours, which can be tremendously valuable when it comes to monitoring weather trends.  The current operational site includes current surface weather observations (METARs), along with Terminal Aerodrome Forecasts (TAFs).  More recently, PIREPs joined the party, taking a significant step forward in providing a more complete idea of conditions a pilot would encounter on a cross-country flight.

Overview of the Beta test site, showing weather cameras, current and forecast weather, pilot reports and airports. Note that while it contains real data, it is a test site not intended for operational use.

Whats new?
The next version of the website continues all the features we have come to count on, and focuses on presenting the information more visually.  The Beta-test site starts with a satellite base map (although you may still select a more conventional map base if desired), and provides a more graphic depiction of the weather data.  METARs are color coded based on the category of weather reported, green for VFR, red for IFR, etc.  For those stations that have a TAF, it too is color coded by the individual time periods of the forecast, allowing a user to see if conditions are forecast to improve, without even having to click on the icon.  Drop-down menus at the top make the program highly configurable, but the most popular features that pilots want to toggle on and off still remain available as buttons on the main page.  A considerable amount of sophistication has gone into making the icons dynamically change as you zoom in or out, to avoid saturating the screen when looking at the big picture. A link to the legend is available in the lower right hand corner to help interpret the icons, many of which change as a function of scale.  Not all features are functional yet, so some menus or buttons are grayed out.

An example airport cluster with current and forecast weather, and a weather camera.

Clicking on the weather camera icon brings the first of multiple displays showing the conditions, along with a color-coded indication of the current and forecast conditions

How you can help
Like any significant tool of this nature, there are many ways to use it.  A core group of volunteer pilots were selected at the start of the project to test the Alpha version of the website and help advise project developers on refinements to make the program responsive to our needs.  These efforts are being coordinated by Dr. Daniela Kratchounova, from the Flight Deck Human Factors Research Lab at the FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (CAMI). The program is now in a Beta-testing mode of operation, and Dr. Kratchounova is looking for a much larger set of users to put it through its paces.  Since the website is being designed for the future extension of the program beyond Alaska, it has to work in parts of the country with greater density of airports and weather stations than are found in Alaska, so she is looking for pilots from across the country to participate in the program at this time.  While the FAA weather cameras are only in Alaska, supplemented by Canadian and some third party camera sites, the METARs, TAFs and PIREPs cover the entire country.  If you are outside of Alaska, consider trying the site for the areas you fly, to see how information is presented. To understand what the weather cameras add, scroll up to Alaska and evaluate the weather for a flight from Anchorage to Fairbanks, where you will find a number of camera sites to see what this visual data adds to the METARs along the route.  The beta test site may be found at: avcamstest.faa.gov.  [Note: The latest version of the site became operational on May 1st–so if you have looked at this link before, make sure to check after this date.] If you are not familiar with the current operational site, look at:  avcams.faa.gov

May 1, 2017 Update: The beta-site became operational on May 1st, with a new address: avcamsplus.faa.gov. FAA continues to seek user input using the Pilot Feedback button, as additional development is continuing. The beta-test link will be re-directed to the new address. The legacy site avcams.faa.gov, will continue to operate in parallel for a few months.

Providing feedback
After trying the weather camera site for a while, look for the “Pilot Feedback” button that leads to a number of questions regarding the features of the site.  Scrolling down this window reveals a matrix of detailed questions to rate the different features on a 1-5 scale, which sends your “vote” to the FAA.  I know— one’s eyes can glaze over when first encountering this array of questions. My suggestion is to read through the questions, close the window and spend some more time using the site before going back and completing the survey.  This may seem a little daunting, but with several hundred people using the site, compiling feedback using a form like this is about the only reasonable way to see trends.  Note, however, for each question area there is a comment field. This is your opportunity to tell the FAA what you liked, or what didn’t work, and how you think it could be improved.  I would suggest paying close attention to what zoom level you use, as you evaluate a flight route, and the features that are displayed at that scale.

To provide feedback, rate the different features using a 1-5 scale. Note that for each question area, there is a place for to comment on features you liked, or think should be changed.

This is a significant development effort, so please take the time to give the system a good work-out, and let FAA know what you think.  As one who has used the weather camera program since its inception, I am excited to see camera data integrated in with the other weather products we use for flight planning.  There are more features planned for the system, so look forward to watching this site continue to develop.

For now, please fill up your coffee cup, click on the link, and spend some quality time looking at this site.  Your efforts to evaluate the program may have a significant impact on where it goes from here!

Alaska is a “weather-poor” state

Alaska pilots are poor (impoverished) when it comes to the amount of weather data available to make critical go/no-go flight decisions. According to the FAA’s surface weather observation stations website, Alaska has 133 AWOS or ASOS weather station locations. In comparison, the “contiguous 48 states” have over 1,800 similar sites. Based on average density of stations nationwide, Alaska would need 183 additional stations to be on par with the rest of the country. That is 2.4 times as many observations as we have today. I am not expecting to see that number of conventional stations in Alaska, but it does point to the need for Alaska pilots to be creative, weather-vigilant, and look to non-conventional sources of information. But first, let’s dig a little deeper into our weather observing system of today.

An overview of the over 1,800 aviation weather stations providing data for pilots and forecasters across the "contiguous 48 states"

An overview of over 1,800 aviation weather stations that provide data for pilots and forecasters across the “contiguous 48 states.”

At approximately the same scale as the previous map, note the density of aviation weather stations providing coverage for Alaska.  Some 180 more stations would be needed to provide a comparably dense network to that enjoyed by the rest of the country.

At approximately the same scale as the map above, note the density of aviation weather stations providing coverage for Alaska. Some 180 additional stations would be needed to provide a comparably dense network to that enjoyed by the rest of the country.

Not all weather reports are equal
Not all weather observations are the same quality. The standard weather observation today is an unattended FAA Automated Weather Observing System (AWOS) and its National Weather Service counterpart the Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS). These devices operate 24 hours a day, and report weather based on sensors that measure wind speed and direction, temperature, dew point, altimeter, ceiling and visibility. Some models may detect precipitation type and accumulation and/or thunderstorms. Advanced as they may be, the unattended stations have some significant limitations. The ceiling is measured using a small laser beam directly overhead while a computer calculates the cloud cover based on a 30 minute average of readings. If, for example, a low fog bank is creeping up on the airport, the unit won’t know about it until the field has gone IFR. Another well-known limitation of these devices is the visibility sensor, which measures the particles within a 1 meter beam of light, and calculates the “up to 10 miles” visibility value we see in the reports. A frustration with this sensor at rural Alaska airports results when a four-wheeler parks next to the sensor (perhaps waiting for an arriving aircraft) and its exhaust drifts into the visibility sensor’s “view,” reducing the reported visibility to 1/8 mile. It’s a mere annoyance to most pilots flying under Part 91, but a commercial pilot flying under Part 135 regulations can’t even shoot the approach with reported conditions lower than the allowable minimums. Automated stations operating unattended contain the word AUTO in the report to alert pilots to that fact. The omission of that term lets the pilot know that either a human is making the observation in the first place, or the observation is being augmented by an observer.

Augmented Weather Stations
Given these limitations in automated stations, the FAA has contract weather observers who augment the equipment at select locations. Airports with significant volumes of traffic, such as Anchorage and Fairbanks, are augmented. One of our Alaska adaptations has been that when the network of Flight Service Stations was reduced in the mid-1990’s, locations that were identified as important strategic locations were provided with a contract weather observer to ensure that the known limitations of automated units didn’t catch a pilot off guard. In the summer of 2013, the weather augmentation contract at Gulkana was cancelled. I am concerned that in the interest of budget reductions, other stations may be on the chopping block.

Five more weather stations closed
One of the means of collecting weather information at remote locations that don’t have an automated station is to contract with a local resident using the A-PAID Program. Under this program, an interested person is trained and certified by the NWS to make a set number of weather reports per day the old fashioned way—by looking at the sky and making manual observations, such as using the distance to local landmarks to estimate visibility. A-PAID observers don’t report 24 hours a day, and if the observer has to travel, is sick or otherwise not available, no report gets filed. A-PAID observers also don’t file Special reports to alert pilots when conditions change, but often they are the only source of weather information in remote areas, or along VFR routes, that help pilots make informed decisions on whether to initiate a flight. A few days ago I learned that the FAA had cancelled the contracts for the last five stations that they had funded for years, leaving us with no weather reports from Farewell Lake, Merrill Pass West, Manley Hot Springs, Nabesna and Chandalar Lake. Five more points, of our already sparse weather network, went dark.

Replacements for A-PAID stations
In 2011 the National Weather Service announced its intention to phase out the A-PAID program, and for those areas that they felt they needed continued observations, replace them with an automated observations similar but not identical to AWOS units. The package they selected is called a Modular Automated Weather Station (MAWS). It is built by a company that makes AWOS systems, and the sensors used are all certified by FAA for use in an AWOS system. MAWS stations record the main elements we need for aviation weather, including ceiling and visibility, but don’t have a VHF radio to transmit the data to an aircraft. They are not certified by FAA as an AWOS, and cost about half as much as a fully certified unit. Due to the lack of certification, at least so far, the FAA and NWS haven’t been able to agree on a basis to consider the reports as METARs, and distribute them through the normal FAA weather channels. This is a real problem for John & Suzy Q Pilot, because unless they know exactly where to look, these observations don’t exist. To date these stations have been deployed in the Central/Circle Hot Springs area, Healy and at Whittier. AOPA and other Alaskan aviation groups are pushing both NWS and FAA to find a way to distribute these observations through the normal channels, given that they are intended for use at VFR airports, or non-airport locations along key VFR routes. Given the lack of progress solving this issue between two federal agencies, we have asked Senator Begich, who sits on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, for help getting the two agencies to come up with a practical solution to this issue to make the observations available. We will continue to push to make this weather fully available to pilots.

Weather Cameras
The FAA Weather Camera Program is the one bright spot that adds weather information to a pilot’s flight kit when it comes to making go/no-go flight decisions. A set of cameras looking multiple directions, updated every 10 minutes, available on the internet from 221 locations across the state provides a tremendous amount of information for flight planning and decision making. As just one example, the camera at the McKinley Park airstrip is co-located with the AWOS unit there. The camera has helped me “interpret” the AWOS report, which one morning was reporting 1/8 mile visibility. A look at the weather camera revealed blue skys in multiple directions with a few wisps of ground fog in the foreground.  This image let me know I was good to launch for a flight thorough Windy Pass. On another occasion, while the AWOS was reporting “clear below 12,000,” a look at the big, ugly, towering cumulus clouds both to the north and south of the station let me know that this was not a good time to expect smooth sailing through the mountains. The station at the airstrip is located in the of the valley between two sets of ridges, which are often where the clouds form, outside the “view” of the AWOS cloud sensor.

As valuable as the network of cameras is, there is a very serious limitation. Currently, the cameras are good during daylight hours only. Great in the summer, but as days shorten, pilots are back “in the dark” having to make go/no-go decisions before camera observations are available. Even in mid-October a local pilot told me this past week he had to wait until 10 a.m. to get a usable image from an interior camera to tell if he could conduct a flight down the Tanana and middle Yukon Rivers. And we aren’t yet into really short winter days! There are now low-light level cameras on the market that might extend the utility of the camera network, however we need a serious research and development effort to evaluate available sensors, and consider the human factors of how to present other than standard color video data for pilots to use in their decision making process.

Alaska forecasts also have limitations
The sparse network of weather observations impacts pilots in more ways than one. In addition to our own weather interpretation, the NWS forecasters are a major consumer of surface observations. They count on them to make and verify the Area and Terminal Forecasts that we use to anticipate what conditions will be like in a few hours, along a cross-country route of flight. Or how fast a weather system is approaching that will impact even local operations. At a recent conference a map was presented (see below) showing how the Alaska weather forecast areas correspond to a similar size area “outside.” NWS forecasters in three weather offices (Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau) turn out forecasts for areas that would be covered by 68 forecast offices in the lower 48. Even if you discount the marine areas, the three forecast offices are covering an area equal to 30 offices down south. Another way to look at it is that about 50 forecasters in Alaska issue products for an area that is covered by about 400 forecasters “outside.”

The three NWS forecast offices in Alaska cover the an area that overlays 68 forecast areas in the middle of the country.

The three NWS forecast offices in Alaska cover the an area that overlays 68 forecast areas in the middle of the country.

The spatial granularity of Alaska products is also different. Just looking at the winds-aloft product,  Alaska forecasts are reported using a 90 kilometer grid in contrast to a 30 kilometer grid used elsewhere in the country. Pilots flying in Alaska have to bear in mind that while the forecast products look the same across the nation, the informational content of our forecasts are lower than if we were planning a route across other portions of the country.

From this flight planning program screen shot, one can see the difference in density between winds aloft forecast values generated for Alaska versus the rest of the country.

From this flight planning program screen shot, one can see the difference in density between winds aloft forecast values generated for Alaska versus the rest of the country.

We need all the observations we can get
Given the size of Alaska, our reliance on the airplane to provide basic transportation, the diversity of terrain and climate, and paucity of emergency landing areas, we need all the weather observations we can lay our hands on. The lack of conventional weather stations enjoyed by pilots in the rest of the country means that:

a)      We need to continue to have augmented weather in key regional locations.

b)      It is essential that observations from lower cost MAWS sites are fully distributed.

c)      We need fully certified AWOS units at airports with instrument approaches.

d)     It is important to expedite research into expanding the use of weather cameras beyond daylight hours, to obtain better utilization of this innovative program.

AOPA is working with the Alaska Airmen’s Association, Air Carriers Association and the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation on these issues, and is engaging both the FAA and National Weather Service to express our concerns. We addressed the Senate GA Caucus meeting held by Senator Begich last spring and have also asked for the help of the entire Alaska congressional delegation. In the current budget climate it will not be an easy sell, but for aviation safety and access, we must make the effort.

New “Convective Outlook” graphic planned for Alaska

In their ongoing efforts to improve the weather forecasts for the aviation community, the National Weather Service’s Alaska Aviation Weather Unit is upgrading the seasonal “convective outlook” forecast.  These graphics are only produced during the summer convective season, and as of May 1st, the format will change.  Below is a sample showing some of the changes which include:

  • Color coding for the coverage (isolated, scatted or widespread)
  • New this year, Towering Cumulus (TCU) will be added to the product
  • The forecast bases and tops will be annotated.

sample convective outlookLink to sample product.

In addition, NWS is looking to increase temporal resolution, but in a more dynamic way. They will have the ability to produce up to eight outlook charts covering a 24 hour period, but will only generate as many as needed for the expected changes.  On very dynamic days, a user might scroll through a series of charts to see conditions develop. Under more stable conditions, fewer charts will be used to tell the story.  Check out this example  to get a better idea of what a sequence could look like.

As always, NWS would like feedback from pilots on their aviation products.  The email link at the bottom left corner of the AAWU page will let you send them an email.  Please take the time to share your thoughts—how you use them, what you like, what might be confusing.

As the snow continues to fall over parts of Alaska in April, it is nice to at least be able to anticipate summer!

Experimental Winds Aloft graphic for Alaska

As pilots, we are very interested in the weather.  An early lesson one gets while learning to fly is not to put total faith in weather forecasts.  I believe it was President Reagan who made famous the phrase– trust, but verify. That certainly applies to forecasts and flying.  For the last year-and-a-half AOPA has been working with our friends at the National Weather Service in Alaska to bringing together groups of seasoned pilots from different parts of Alaska to sit down with forecasters and have a discussion about aviation weather needs, primarily focused on VFR flying.  Questions asked in these sessions typically start with, “What route do you fly to get from Fairbanks to Eagle?” followed by, “Where along that route do you encounter adverse weather?”  A lively discussion regarding the nature of the weather conditions normally follows.

Don Moore manages the Alaska Aviation Weather Unit, located on Sand Lake Road, just south of the Anchorage International Airport, and has led these discussions.  After listening to pilots describe some of the conditions that plagued them, he pulled up an experimental forecast product the weather service is working on, and asked if we thought it might be helpful.  Following a look at the product, heads started to nod around the table.  A few weeks later, an experimental winds aloft forecast was added to the AAWU website, and is available for pilots to use.

sample winds aloft graphic 1

Sample output from the experimental product, showing winds at 6,000 feet for the 12 hour time period. Users can select the altitude, set through time periods, and toggle features on and off.

This product is based on a computer model, but has finer resolution in time and space than current products we are used to seeing.  The arrows indicate the direction of the wind at an altitude selected by the pilot, but the intensity is displayed as a color.  Temperature is also displayed as a contour line, with its own color scheme. The legend at the bottom provides the color codes for each feature.  Several details about this product are worth noting:

1)      The user selects the altitude at the top of the page
2)      The tabs across the top allow you to step through different forecast periods
3)      The + and – symbols on the top left corner of the image allow you to zoom in (only one step, currently)
4)      The + symbol on the upper right edge of the product lets you toggle features on and off (click to expand)
5)      The color patches represent the area forecast for each wind speed, the vectors merely show direction.

Please give this product a try.  You will find this graphic by clicking a link at the bottom of the Winds Aloft page on the AAWU’s website (see yellow arrows, below).

page to find experimental productThis product is still in development.  For now, the National Weather Service would really appreciate receiving pilot reports to help validate this product, as well as their other forecasts.  So when you are headed out to fly, please take a few minutes and file PIREPs enroute, including an estimate of the winds aloft.  Remember– trust, but verify!