09/02/05 — Still watching the weather

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Still watching the weather

By Barbara Arntsen
Published in News on September 2, 2005 1:47 PM

Long before the arrival of complicated computer systems and Doppler radar, B.E. Dean was forecasting the weather -- the old-fashioned way.

It was back in the 1950s, at Stallings Air Base in Kinston, when Dean began a five-year stint as a local weatherman.

"I studied meteorology in Tulsa, Okla.," he said. "Back then, there were only a couple of places in the states where you could study it."

Now, he said, almost every university seems to offer some kind of meteorology course, but he's not sure that more training for the predictors has really improved the accuracy of weather forecasts.

"No one is perfect in forecasting all the time," he said. "But I tend to believe that we were more accurate then, than all these whippersnappers are now with all their computers."

Back then, Dean translated a series of numbers, transmitted from the National Weather Bureau over a teletype machine, into a meaningful weather forecast several times a day.

"We got the information and plotted it on the weather maps," he said. "If you were good and fast, you could plot it in about 45 minutes."

Dean said the meaning of a number could change, depending on its location in the coded sequence.

"It was a lot of memory work, and you had to learn the codes," he said. "I could glance at a series of these numbers and plot the whole station. Seeing the numbers, you got a mental picture."

Dean said forecasters used pi-balloons to measure wind direction and speed, as well as radiosondes to interpret moisture in the atmosphere.

The radiosondes were small, balloon-borne instrument packages, complete with a radio transmitter, that transmitted data back to the station.

The balloons were tracked visually to measure upper-air winds. Dean said a surveying instrument, called a theodolite, was used to measure compass direction and the angle of elevation for wind speeds.

"We could plot the winds aloft, the direction and velocity, using the theodolite," he said.

Dean said the meteorologists plotted new forecasts every six hours, using simple arithmetic.

"We also had windows to see out of. We weren't deep inside buildings without a view," he said.

To Dean, computers have a place in weather forecasting, but can't replace common sense.

"For example, those computer models don't take into account that the hot air just won't be pushed over those mountains, so they'll say the weather is going to move on through," Dean explained. "But it stays, and stalls."

He said hurricanes were always the hardest to predict, because they didn't need a front before them.

"Just the moisture and temperature," he said. "That's all it takes.

Dean remembers when Hazel hit, and said a strong cold front within the state collided with the hurricane in the eastern part of the state.

"All the forecasts were moving around about Hazel, saying it was here and there," he said. "But we suspected it would hit here."

He praised the chief forecaster of the National Weather Service for his hurricane predictions for 2005.

"He has been dead on the mark," he said.

In 1959, Dean gave up his full-time job as a meteorologist to open a wheel alignment business in Goldsboro.

But he kept his hand in the weather business by becoming a "cooperative observer" for the state weather bureau for 27 years.

"After they got the station over at the base, the state wrote me and said they didn't need me anymore," he said. "It's the only volunteer job, I ever was fired from."

During his time as an observer, Dean faithfully recorded rainfalls and measured the levels of the Neuse River.

"I measured them every day, until Seymour got going good, and they automated the river information," he said. "I was glad for that because getting up really early, especially on Saturday and Sunday, was tough."

Dean said that a woman was Goldsboro's weather observer for 43 years before he came, and before that a man "out towards Genoa did it for years."

"Goldsboro is the fourth-oldest continuous recording station in the state," Dean said. "First was Raleigh, then Bath and then Cape Hatteras. Goldsboro began recording weather around 1880."

Although retired from official weather-watching, Dean continues to dabble in meteorology.

He monitored last week's downpour with his rain gauge, saying he got 2.54 inches of rain at his house.

"The weather bureau is still the authority, they're still 'Boss Hawg' but they're muted now," he said. "The weatherman comes on television every 10 minutes during the newscast, but he doesn't tell you anything different."

Dean said people nowadays were being "over-weathered."

"It's boring," he said. "The only thing people really want to know is what should I put on the kids today, and what do I need to wear."