Local weather fanatics go where the action is

Storm stalkers whip up a cyclone of data

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

Published:

 

On the Web

Want to get involved in Clark County’s weather-watching community? Try these sites:

• Pacific Northwest Weather group on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/groups/109882929060639/

• Weekly forecast: http://www.columbian.com/weather/

• The Columbian weather blog: http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/weather/

• Fox KPTV-12 weather blog: http://fox12weather.wordpress.com/

Matt Sloan peered slantwise at the sky as he slowly tugged the 10-foot-tall wind meter from his car.

The 33-year-old, a paraeducator at Heritage High School, was bringing the gadget into a nearby building to be photographed, but from the grin on his face, it was easy to tell he’d rather be outside monitoring the weather.

“Oh, the wind is picking up,” he said, looking eagerly at the spinning cups on top of the long yellow pole. “Usually, I’d be driving around with this sticking out through my sun roof.”

It’s hard to go through an event like the snowstorm of 2008 or the Columbus Day storm of 1962 without it leaving a lasting impression on your mind. And with another La Niña winter looming, it’s certainly possible that the next memorable storm is on the horizon.

Most people rely on the daily weather forecast to anticipate what’s coming, but for a few intrepid Clark County weather fanatics, the fun part is in gathering data and tracking storms yourself.

For Sloan, that storm-chasing bug came early.

He was only about 18 months old at the time, but he said he still vividly remembers the two massive windstorms that ripped through the area in November 1981.

“I happened to be down on the Oregon Coast with my family, and there was a prediction of a major storm,” Sloan said. “It came in the night, and it was really big. It was like a jet engine parked right outside our hotel room, and in the morning I remember the parking lots were all flooded.”

Tyler Mode, 29, another aficionado who is acquainted with Sloan through the local weather scene, has a similar story. He grew fascinated with meteorology after witnessing an impressive summer storm when he was about 10 years old.

“There was a big lightning storm overnight, and I ended up watching it for two or three hours,” Mode said. “I’ve been fascinated with weather ever since. It lasted so long, the lights, the sound of the thunder were amazing. I was wondering what created that and why it happens.”

Most people hunker down when they think a storm is coming — or a rough winter.

Sloan and Mode, though, both head out to the coast or up through the Columbia River Gorge during the season so they can get closer to nature at its most furious.

“Sometimes I’ll drive out looking for coastal storms and see if I can stay the night,” Mode said. “Weather guys, we like to try to see who has the strongest winds, or who measures the most rain.”

Everybody seems to have their favorite type of weather, too.

For Mode, it’s wind, snow or lightning.

Sloan is obsessed with wind, but he’s also fascinated by hurricanes and tornadoes, he said.

“Tornadoes are rare and very hard to catch here,” Sloan said. “Most are cold air funnels. I love hurricanes, but we don’t get a lot of them around here, either. We sometimes get dead typhoons here, and when they interact with our weather patterns, it can get deadly and very severe.”

That’s what happened during the Columbus Day

storm of 1962, which happened before Sloan and Mode were born. Being weather fans, each man can tell you quite a bit about it.

“It’s the grandfather of all windstorms around here,” Sloan said. “It knocked down millions of trees. Winds in Vancouver were recorded at 93 miles per hour before the wind gauge was destroyed or the power went out and it stopped working.”

A love of data

Mode, who works as an assistant manager at Safeway, is less of a chaser than Sloan and more of a data collector.

Mode owns two weather stations, one at his parents’ home in Vancouver that he’s operated for about 16 years and another in Battle Ground where he moved about a year ago.

“In December 1995, there was a really big windstorm, and that’s the year I got my first big weather station,” Mode said. “My parents gave it to me for Christmas.”

He’s updated the system over the years but still has all the data he’s collected since the first time he put it up, he said.

“It all transmits to a computer inside the house,” Mode said. “I report two rainfall numbers to the National Weather Service every month.”

It’s interesting to have two stations in Clark County, because it’s taught him a lot about microclimates across a small area, he said.

For example, it will often be 4 or 5 degrees cooler in Battle Ground than in Vancouver, he said.

“I want to see what all the differences are between Vancouver and Battle Ground,” Mode said. “Besides, my mom or my sisters or brothers always text me and ask what the temperature is. They expect me to know the weather wherever they are at that instant.”

From his log books, he’s noticed a few growing trends in the Pacific Northwest. The springs seem to betting cooler and wetter, and the summers — when they come — have been hotter, Mode said.

“We also seem to be getting less snow,” he said. “My parents remember when it used to snow a lot more here, but since I’ve been tracking it, the levels are going down. We seem to get more freezing rain instead.”

Sloan also collects data, news clippings, pictures and other information about big storms in the region, but he prefers to hop in the car and follow the action instead of gathering information from stationary equipment. One of his favorite pastimes is to go to Crown Point to record high wind speeds, he said.

“Especially when a storm’s coming, I’ll hop in the car and just data log everything,” Sloan said. “If I get winds bigger than 60 miles per hour, I can call in and report them to the National Weather Service as a spotter.”

Sometimes the best equipment for recording high winds or very cold temperatures is older equipment, he said.

“I like analog stuff because it’s cool and it works, even in the coldest places,” Sloan said. “Besides, I’ve been collecting this stuff since I was a kid.”

The prize piece of his collection is a brass and copper wind gauge from the late 1870s that he bought from a weather store in Massachusetts.

“It would have been used by the U.S. Weather Bureau, founded in 1897,” he said with pride.

Let it snow? Maybe

As for this winter, the two weather fans have differing opinions.

Mode doesn’t think we’ll see a lot of snow this season, he said.

“I think we’ll get some but not before the end of this month,” Mode said. “I don’t see anything big coming really.”

Sloan disagrees.

“The weather analogs are looking toward a year similar to 2008, when we had the big snowstorm,” Sloan said. “I think we’re going to have some snow this year. There will also be a couple arctic outbreaks, where temperatures can get into the teens and lower.”

Time will tell who’s right, but in the meantime, both said they’re ready to record what happens either way.