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Wednesday, 23 January 2013 14:33

Weather or not: Local Yokel Weather fine tunes forecasts for your neck of the woods

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out frHave you ever been told by the evening news to expect three inches of snow overnight, but after stocking up on bread, toilet paper and flashlight batteries, you walk out the next morning, snow shovel in hand, to find only a pitiful dusting in the driveway? If you live in Western North Carolina, chances are you’ve been there, done that.

 

The complex wind patterns and varied topography make forecasting weather in the Southern Appalachians more time-consuming, technical and arduous compared to flatter, more predictable terrain. Many mountain dwellers have learned to take the forecasts of their regional and local weatherman with a grain of salt.

“We felt like we were being lied to,” lamented Preston Jacobsen, an amateur meteorologist in Sylva.

Those sentiments prompted Jacobsen to take matters into his own hands, joining a growing number of internet weather sites engaged in “hyper-local” forecasting.

Jacobsen, now 25, was a student at Western Carolina University when he launched the Local Yokel Weather in 2007. A loose-knit group of fellow students and community members, who have come and gone over the years, helped get the site off the ground and continue to provide volunteer manpower.

What began as a simple weather blog with several dozen visitors per day — most of whom Jacobsen suspects were his family members and friends — and has now grown into a regional website with thousands of visits per week.

Since those early days of forecasting mostly campus weather, Local Yokel Weather has expanded from one weather station to seven across the region. Most now are in Jackson — along with one in Highlands and one in Haywood based at Cataloochee Ski Area. Soon, Jacobsen will add a station in Franklin. Eventually, he hopes to have more than 100 stations in his weather empire spanning the far western counties of WNC and mountainous sections of neighboring South Carolina and Georgia.

“These areas haven’t even been touched yet in terms of accuracy or coverage,” Jacobsen said. “Big weather doesn’t have the manpower or resources or even interest to do it on the scale that were doing it. We’re fixing the gaps, filling in the holes nobody wanted.”

The region’s remoteness and unpredictability is what has scared away larger — what Jacobsen calls “mega” — weather outlets. It takes a lot of time and resources to offer highly localized forecasts, with very little return given the comparatively small number of viewers in rural areas.

Instead commercial weather outlets, like the Weather Channel, use general algorithms and paint with broad strokes across WNC when making forecasts. Even WLOS, said Jacobsen, may mention Sylva in its forecast, but not Caney Fork.

Based on his experience, Jacobsen said mega weather outlets frequently get it wrong by 5 and 8 degrees Fahrenheit and can be off by an inch or two of precipitation.

Getting it right takes specialization, time and resources — each weather station costs about $600.

Terrain poses a host of challenges for mountain meteorologists. Drastic jumps in elevation — climbing from a 2,000-foot valley to a 6,000-foot peak over a short distance —mimics a climate range that stretches form Canada to Alabama, Jacobsen said.

The mountains also wreak havoc on uniform precipitation — Transylvania County, the wettest part of the state, is only 20 miles away from Buncombe County, one of the driest parts of the state. Then throw in a few tropical storms from the Gulf or hurricanes along the Atlantic coast.

“This part of the Appalachian chain is truly unique,” Jacobsen said.

It helps to have local knowledge, taking into account the cloud cover created by the Jackson Paper mill in Sylva or Cullowhee’s location in a thermal valley.

The uniqueness and local variability of weather in the WNC stuns many college students coming to WCU from the flat lands. While at WCU himself, Jacobsen would see students caught off guard, wearing shorts in freezing temperatures because it had been in the 70s the day before. He’d refer them to the website, and indeed WCU students have become the biggest fans of Local Yokel Weather.

“Students need to be in touch,” Jacobsen said. “They don’t know the area, they don’t know patterns. And the variability is something to behold.”

Jacobsen, himself came from the Gulf Coast area to study in Cullowhee.

Jacobsen said the site is attracting hundreds of new loyal followers each year and has plans to expand into the mobile phone market.

And, unlike so-called “Big Weather” companies, Jacobsen isn’t getting rich off his forecasts. Anything he does make he invests back into Local Yokel Weather, perhaps in the form of more weather stations.

Two sales representatives sell ad spots on the website, where a majority of the company’s revenue comes from. Jacobsen, with the help of a staff climatologist, also does side projects with Jackson County Emergency Management and other local businesses to provide specialized weather forecasting. And as a side job, Jacobsen has his own portable snow machine and will make snow-for-hire for parties and events.

Jacobsen’s day job overseeing sustainability initiatives at Haywood Community College is what pays the bills. Rather, he sees his weather service as just that — a service to the community, and a lot of fun.

“Our focus is local, local, local. We’re not in it for the money,” Jacobsen said. “Honestly, it’s just something I’m a really big nerd about.”

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