By Jenny Neyman
Know before you go.
That old adage is relevant when undertaking any travel in any region, but perhaps even more so in Alaska. It’s certainly as important as ever in Alaska, where severe weather and challenging conditions can whip up at any time and are particularly dangerous in the vast stretches of middle of nowhere that still exist in the state.
“However you get your weather, it’s just as important for people not to take chances, to reduce their risk through knowledge,” said Audrey Rubel, regional communications manager for the National Weather Service Alaska.
It’s also easier than ever to know before you go. With advances in technology and increasing utilization of social media, not only is there more information available, it’s shared in many more ways. These days, anyone with Internet access can have a world of weather and safety information right at their fingertips:
See how foggy it is along Turnagain Arm in your Facebook feed, get a text message warning of a developing tsunami after an earthquake in the Aleutians, watch a long-term forecast any time you’d like, visually check whether the Seward Highway has been plowed after a snowstorm, get a Tweet about increased activity at Mount Redoubt Volcano, be notified of the expected wait time at a roadwork site along your morning commute.
The older, more standard ways of sharing information still exist — the National Weather Service still provides NOAA weather radio, media outlets still do weather reports, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities still sends out notices of maintenance issues and planned roadwork, and the like. But these agencies and more also are making an increasingly proactive effort to communicate directly with people through social media.
“What it boils down to is real, serious issues, with forecasts and questions, will be directed to our forecast offices, but we do share a lot of information out via Twitter and via Facebook, at the national level and at the regional level here in Alaska,” Rubel said. “It’s still not an ‘official’ means of communications, but it is a way that we reach out with this experimental service to reach more customers. It’s a nationwide push but it’s probably especially important to us in Alaska because our weather’s so severe and we have so many people who are in remote communities. That probably increases our need for a variety of services.”
The National Weather Service Alaska has a particularly robust presence in the digital age. It’s operated a general Twitter feed since fall 2012, and one for each of the three regional forecast offices — Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau — plus adding a Twitter account for the Tsunami Warning Center in mid-October 2012 and one for the River Forecast Center in May 2013. The Tsunami Warning Center feed has the most followers, with an additional function of being able to send Tweets as text messages straight to a personal cellphones.
“You get a text message showing the actual information so I’m sure a sure lot of people around the coastal areas get something like that, to get an instantaneous alert as to what’s happening. If there’s an earthquake and a big tsunami may be happening, that could give you that vital information that much quicker,” said Samuel Shea, Service Delivery Program manager with the National Weather Service Alaska.
Want to see a weather forecast but missed the news broadcast on TV? The NWSA has its own YouTube channel, with daily briefings posted. Or indulge in enough information to make even the geekiest weather nerd happy on the NWSA Facebook page, with forecast information as well as posts about interesting weather tidbits — records being set, pressure systems developing in the Pacific Ocean, extreme temperatures in Canada, yearly snow totals and the like.
“Sometimes a picture’s worth a thousand words,” Rubel said. “The graphical presentation of our products is nice.”
Facebook has grown in leaps and bounds for the NWSA since its page was created in July 2011. As of Tuesday the page has 18,662 “likes,” meaning that many other Facebook users are linking to the NWSA page to see its posts in their own Facebook feeds. In July 2012 the page had about 6,700 likes, Shea said. At this time last year the page had about 10,000 likes.
“With Facebook it seems like ‘likes’ come around events,” Shea said. “Quiet weather, you don’t get anybody new coming to our page, but a lot of times when we have active weather happening you’ll get people sharing different stories and you get different people liking our page because they realize we’re kind of an interesting source of weather information, and it’s a unique way to see your forecast and the information coming across.”
Not only does social media allow agencies to better connect with Alaskans, it creates opportunities for conversation back from those receiving the information. That’s been an appreciated benefit for the NWSA.
“If you’re trying to relay information, it’s a great way for us to get pictures. Something’s happening — if there’s flooding, a foot of snow or something like that — a lot of time you’ll see our followers post a quick little image, and it helps forecasters out significantly because you guys are our eyes in between our typical data points. With as big as Alaska is we can’t have eyes across entire state, so that’s sort of the beauty of social media is we can get information quickly where we normally don’t have it,” Shea said.
NWSA operates a Spotter program, where it asks for volunteers across the state to sign up to get calls from forecasters if they want to know something in the volunteer’s area.
“If they’re (forecasters) not sure of something, if their models are conflicting, they’re looking for timing or they want to verify something, they will call their Spotter people who volunteer to be called. That helps us to help our customers because our observations are sparse. We’re data sparse here in Alaska, we don’t have the observations as close together as in the Lower 48, so those kinds of things are very important to us,” Rubel said.
Social media offers an extension of this idea, with residents contributing their observations and photos, and being able to ask questions, too, via Tweeting back to forecasters, or commenting on Facebook posts.
“They’ll interact with you, if you Tweet something to us we’ll respond back. If you post a question on our Facebook page we do our best to answer those questions, too,” Shea said.
It keeps weather part of the conversation. Nothing new there, as anyone attempting to make small talk can attest. But it’s entering a whole new venue.
“I think it does make people more aware of things and it is good to have two-way communication with people’s interest. I think people here are very nature conscious anyway. We have to be — it can be life and death for us,” Rubel said.