RUSKIN — A big dose of red tide can ruin a beach weekend with airborne toxins and fish kills from the hazardous algae bloom. Blinding fog intertwined with smoke from a nearby forest fire can shut down interstates, or worse, cause deadly pileups. A pilot program the National Weather Service is now conducting, called Weather-Ready Nation, is designed to get word out fast when such perils lurk. Meteorologists at the weather station in Ruskin comprise one of six teams nationwide issuing specialized forecasts designed to save lives and property. Forecasters in Ruskin are tasked with issuing “ecological forecasts” that can save cold-stressed manatees, steer beach-goers clear of nasty red tide blooms and even assist the Florida Highway Patrol in knowing, in advance, when “super fog” might create a death trap for motorists.
Five other weather stations scattered across the country will each have a different focus: urban forecasts, the coastal environment, creating a regional operations center, creating a national operations center and pairing science with weather operations. Now halfway through the pilot, which wraps up in 2015, the project is already showing signs of success. The National Ocean Service, another branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, for example, has seen a three-fold increase in traffic to its website since Ruskin meteorologists began issuing beach hazard statements. The statements alert the public to red tide issues, fish kills or other such incidents, said Mike Gittinger, the emergency response meteorologist team leader. “We needed a better way to get our message out to the public,” regarding dangerous red tide outbreaks, said Karen Kavanaugh, a biologist with the National Ocean Service. “We talked to the National Weather Service and learned about their beach alerts and thought that would be a good way to disseminate our information more widely.” And it’s working, she said. The weather service posts the beach reports on its site and teases to the NOS site, which links to Mote Marine Research Institute and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. So everyone is benefitting, she said. “This pilot program is like a mini-modernization of the National Weather Service,” said Rick Davis, one of the Ruskin emergency response meteorologists. In the 1980s, it was a new type of Doppler radar that brought the NWS into more modern times. Now, he said, it’s this more specialized form of forecasting. The team has a spread sheet full of partners, including the National Estuary Program in Tampa and Sarasota, the U.S. Geological Survey, Florida Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Port of Tampa. It works with all of them to prepare these specialized forecasts. If ship captains know in advance when sea fog will roll into Tampa Bay, for example, they can steer clear of the port until it lifts, Davis said. If a river upstream from a shellfish bed is about to experience heavy rains, the weather service can notify the Department of Environmental Protection in advance so it can close harvesting until the threat of polluted runoff passes. “In the past, we had limited contact with these other agencies,” Davis said. “Now, we are collaborating and coordinating. We’ve developed tailored forecasts for those entities for the protection of life and property, which is our priority.” “It’s about helping our partners to be more pro-active,” said Emergency Response Meteorologist Todd Barron. “We find out what weather phenomenon will impact them and we modify or create a new program.” For example, if the temperature in the Gulf of Mexico is about to drop below 50 degrees, manatees will suffer from cold stress. Forecasters notify the FWC, which can order a helicopter to monitor the gulf and send volunteers out in search of cold-stressed manatees. “In 2011, we had 14 separate billion-dollar weather incidents,” across the country, Davis said. “In 2012, we had 11 billion-dollar incidents. There will always be big weather incidents.” The more specialized the forecasting is, the better prepared everyone will be, he said. [email protected] (813) 259-7127