RUSKIN - They seek out diabolical-looking weather systems creeping toward each other, destined to collide. They peruse 3D images of storms brewing just to the south of the Tampa Bay area. And they are constantly on the look-out for whirlings and swirlings far out into the Gulf of Mexico.
Meteorologists at the National Weather Service station in Ruskin see it all. And then, they let the rest of us know what to expect. And this time of year, with hurricane season here, the pace picks up considerably.
"We're something like a 911 center for weather," said Dan Noah, warning coordination meteorologist at the station, which opened in 1975 when the area was still mostly farm fields. "There are at least two or three people here at all times.
"Our primary mission is to issue hazardous weather warnings for the protection of life and property," Noah said. "We pretty much cover from Cedar Key to Fort Myers and inland to Sumpter, Polk and Highlands Counties."
In all, the weather service in Ruskin covers 15 counties in West Central and Southwest Florida and does coastal water forecasts up to 60 miles offshore.
Each day, twice a day, meteorologists at the station south of College Avenue, send up balloons to gather dew point, temperature, wind speed and wind direction. That information is used by local media outlets to formulate forecasts that they disseminate on television and in print media, said Michael Lewis, the meteorologist responsible for the balloon launches.
It takes the latex balloons about two hours to travel 20 miles or so up to the edge of the atmosphere, collecting data as they go. The launches haven't changed much in decades, Lewis told a recent tour group from the St. Petersburg Astronomy Club. By the time the balloons reach the top of the atmosphere, they've expanded to the size of a small house.
It is the instrument the balloon is carrying that has changed through the years, Lewis said. With improvements in technology, weather instruments have gotten more sophisticated, which allows the meteorologists to more accurately report on weather in real time.
When necessary, meteorologists at the Ruskin station and in Melbourne, Miami, Key West, Jacksonville and Tallahassee step in to supplement information coming out the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Lewis said. That can mean sending up even more balloons to gather more up-to-the minute weather information.
"If there's a storm in the Atlantic, we will launch in the early afternoon," Lewis said.
"Right now, we have our most active weather patterns," Noah said. "But January through May is really busy as we prepare for the upcoming hurricane and rainy season. We do a lot of public outreach to communities and civic groups and schools. A lot of our work is with emergency management offices on hazardous weather and hurricane exercises. They have to test their plans and we mix it up and make the bad weather scenario that they want to test. It is kind of fun."
The Ruskin meteorologists also work with the local media. "Emergency management and media are our two primary partners," Noah said.
In addition to the balloons, some 29 employees at the station monitor information coming in from various satellites traveling just above earth's atmosphere.
These days, they even get a bit of help from the public. Noah and others monitor social media to learn even more than their computer screens and balloons can tell them.
"We have over 2,400 Twitter followers just following the Ruskin office, and over 7,800 facebook followers," Noah said. "We search social media for information on hail, tornadoes and wind damage." It is a way for the weather service to communicate directly with the public, he said.
To follow the local weather station on Twitter, go to @nwsTampaBay. Members of the community don't have to be on Facebook or Twitter to get the information the National Weather Service is sending out. Just go to weather.gov/tampa, then click on Top News of the Day for tweets and facebook posts.