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The weatherman at the end of the world

  • Author: John Ryan
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 5, 2015

ST. PAUL — William Wells lives and works at what may be the nation's most remote weather station -- 300 miles off the west coast of mainland Alaska, 500 miles off the east coast of Siberia in the Bering Sea. Even on remote St. Paul Island, the station is off by itself, a few miles from the village of 400 people who call St. Paul home.

Each afternoon, Wells walks from his office to a two-story-tall garage, where he fills up a 6-foot-wide balloon with hydrogen.

"You wouldn't be able to use your equipment while I would be inflating," Wells told a radio reporter who accompanied him afterward. "We would have to do this interview outside in the wind because of the risk of static electricity that would create a potential explosion hazard."

"But we're not under threat right now because (the hydrogen is) contained safely within that latex," he says.

Helium would be safer but it's more expensive, especially considering the cost of shipping to the middle of the Bering Sea; St. Paul's National Weather Service station generates its own hydrogen on site, however.

Once the big latex balloon is inflated, Wells takes a string and ties a small gadget known as a radiosonde to the balloon.

"It tracks the temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and wind direction as it goes up through the atmosphere," Wells says.

Tundra sprinter

He pulls on a heavy chain to open the double-tall garage door. Then he grabs the balloon's string in one hand and checks his watch with the other. When the clock strikes 3, he sprints out the door in a mad dash, crossing a patch of tundra toward the gravel road in front of the station.

As the balloon above him clears the high garage door, a 30-knot wind whips it hard to the east. The wind that strafes low, treeless St. Paul Island pummels the balloon into a shape much like a 3-D comma.

Wells needs to get away from the weather station buildings so the wind doesn't plow the balloon or its electronics into the side of one of them.

Once he reaches the road, he releases the balloon, and it shoots away. In this wind, the balloon takes off more like an airplane than a balloon.

Wells returns to the garage and quickly closes it up.

"Now, I'm going to apologize, but I'm going to take off almost at a full-bore sprint," he says before doing just that.

He sprints the 100 yards back to his office to make sure the radiosonde is transmitting data in real time. It is. No need for a second launch today.

Hundreds of balloons

For Wells, this is a daily routine. For the balloon, it's a one-time affair. As it rises 20 miles into the sky, the balloon swells to about 40 feet in diameter. Then it bursts and returns to Earth as debris, most likely somewhere in the Bering Sea — but not before it has sent back valuable data.

"We are such a remote location," Wells says. "Our data is pretty precious."

That data gets used within the hour in the 4 p.m. NOAA weather forecasts that mariners and others rely on in the Bering Sea and beyond.

Twice a day, like clockwork, balloons are released from hundreds of locations around the world at noon and midnight Universal Time (3 p.m. and 3 a.m. Alaska Daylight Time). Before they burst in the upper atmosphere, they help weather forecasters pinpoint what's going on overhead.

In a report on the impacts of released balloons, marine biologist Jan van Franeker with Wageningen University in the Netherlands wrote that even though they're made of natural latex, the balloons are a danger to wildlife, especially seabirds. He says remains of weather balloons can be found regularly on European beaches.

"The risk of wildlife suffering or dying from balloons may be best balanced against usefulness or necessity of balloons released," van Franeker writes. "Latex weather-balloons are an essential element for reliable weather forecasts to the extent that human life may be affected."

Each National Weather Service radiosonde includes a self-addressed envelope encouraging anyone who finds it to mail the gadget back for reuse.

A century in St. Paul

The St. Paul weather station has been collecting data since 1915. It's been successfully sending balloons into the sky, in winds up to 50 mph, since 1948.

Wells says he's always loved the weather, especially the meat and potatoes of gathering the raw information needed to make a forecast.

"It takes a lot of skill and hardiness to do it, and I'm proud to do it," he says.

The National Weather Service is testing an automatic balloon-launching device at its Kodiak station this year. Someday, human launchers like Wells could be replaced by machines at the 13 weather stations in Alaska and those across the country.

For now, Wells is a continent — and 300 miles of the Bering Sea — away from his native North Carolina, but he doesn't mind.

"I feel privileged to be doing this," he says. "I'd always wanted to work for the weather service and now I am working for the weather service, and I couldn't be happier."

Bering Sea hub

Some St. Paul residents dislike it when their home is described as "the middle of nowhere." And in some ways, the Pribilof Islands are centrally located:

• St. Paul is home to the world's largest Aleut community;

• Trident Seafoods claims to run the world's largest crab-processing plant there.

• Nearly half of all seafood harvested in the United States is hauled up from the surrounding Bering Sea.

Still, travel to St. Paul from almost anywhere else (it's a three-hour, thrice-weekly flight from Anchorage on planes so small they ask you what you weigh before assigning you a seat), and you realize that St. Paul is on the distant outer perimeter of the Last Frontier.

Wells says his quiet life on the outskirts of St. Paul, on the outskirts of America, is lacking in some creature comforts, but it's been good for him.

"I lost 25 pounds after moving up here because I didn't have the temptations of fast-food restaurants," he says.

It's a different career path from his classmates', who get dressed up and made up and sweep their arms in front of maps on TV news. Jobs like his make their forecasts possible.

"They can have the TV and the radio," Wells says. "I'll stick with this."

John Ryan is a reporter with KUCB in Unalaska, part of Alaska Public Media, where this story first appeared. Reprinted with permission.

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