It’s all good weather

Story by Chris Graham

ericpritchett.gifI confess – I’m a weather junkie, no, a weather nerd.
I know the lingo like you might know football lingo or politics parlor talk.
Embedded thunderstorms – yes.
Coastal lows that have the potential to be a Nor’easter. I’m there.
I get jazzed up over Alberta Clippers. And can’t get enough of El Nino.
So I have sitting in front of me the local TV weatherman, Eric Pritchett.
What would you expect me to do, then, except try to show off what I think I know?
I mean, who knows, maybe he might need me to sit in for him one night …
With that somewhere in mind, I ask him first, What’s a typical day like for you?
“You can’t be totally divorced of the weather,” Pritchett says immediately.

I like that. The weather is all around us.

I’m going to start using that one myself, actually.

And its corollary – I’m wedded to the weather.

Pritchett, it seems, for his part, basically lives the weather. “When I get up in the morning, after I have some time to myself, I turn on the computer, and I start looking at satellite and radar stuff. I’ll read some discussions from the National Weather Association. I’ll look at some models from the National Weather Service – and just get a sense of what I’m looking at before I go into work,” he says.

Pritchett works the night shift at NBC29 in Charlottesville – which has him producing and anchoring the news at 5, 5:30, 6, 10 and 11.

“Plus weather updates for our WeatherPlus channel,” Pritchett says, making sure I don’t leave anything out.

He typically gets to the office by 2 o’clock each weekday afternoon, which gives him some time to get more in the way of updates from the weather service and to analyze the situation locally.

And that’s not an easy thing to do when locally means the diversity of Central Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley and the havoc that it can wreak on a weather forecaster – particularly when it comes to winter weather.

“I appreciate all the seasons – but there’s no doubt that winter forecasting is the most challenging. Because winter events are obviously longer in duration than an average thunderstorm or line of storms coming through in the afternoon or something like that,” Pritchett says.

“Because of our geography, you have the coastal plain and the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, and then you start to rise with elevation as you go through the Piedmont of Central Virginia, and you go through the foothills of the Blue Ridge, you crest over the Blue Ridge, you hit the Shenandoah Valley, and then you’ve got the higher Alleghenies out to the west. So for Charlottesville’s elevation, just slightly above 600 feet, and then you cross over Afton, and Afton’s pass, I believe, is around 1,900 feet – but the Blue Ridge Mountains average around 3,000 feet – then you come back down to the Valley floor, which is just over 1,300 feet, yeah, it makes things very challenging,” Pritchett says.

Notice how I’m not interested in interjecting here.

I’m learning a lot.

I’m going to shut up now.

“In the wintertime, the cold air gets trapped at the lower levels, and of course cold air is dense. And then with a lot of storm systems coming out of the Southwest, the Gulf of Mexico, they siphon off Gulf moisture and Atlantic moisture, so you get the warm air overrunning the cold air that’s still stuck at the surface. So depending on the depth of that cold air, when it’s trapped, you can have a potpourri of wintry weather – some freezing rain, some sleet and snow, some all snow,” Pritchett says.

“So it does make it challenging in the winter to forecast that. And of course the mountains act as a block many times. Annual precipitation is higher east of the Blue Ridge as opposed to the Shenandoah Valley. And a lot of teams you see storm systems coming in from the west, and they look quite intense as they come across the Ohio River Valley, but they’ll break up because you’ve got the upslope and downslope component of the Appalachians.”

I’m in heaven.

I next tell Pritchett that the thing that impresses me about most of the weather forecasters that we see on TV is how they can bring the meteorological sciences down to the layperson’s level – as he had just done for me.

“It comes with practice – being able to conversationally and in concise, friendly and informative ways explain to viewers the weather, what’s currently happening, what’s going to happen, what you think is going to happen. And I strive to do that on a daily basis. I try, as the expression from the National Weather Association says, Bringing weather down to earth,” Pritchett says.

Final question – weather forecasting is tough, to say the least, but you have to get it right; how do you deal with those competing pressures?

“We try. It is very hard. What we try to do is, on a daily basis, present the most information, in a friendly, concise manner, of what folks can expect when they venture out. Obviously, when you’re looking at a 24-hour forecast, a two-day forecast, that’s going to have more credibility than something farther out, when you’re looking at the seven-day. It’s basically any time after three days is trends,” Pritchett says.

“I take my job seriously – and I try to do the very best with the tools that we have and the information that we have. Weather forecasting has obviously improved – but I don’t think there’s any such thing as a weather expert, because there are just so many variables, so many things that happen. Even with the technology that we have at our disposal, Mother Nature is bigger than what we can look at and try to forecast for. But we do the best that we can,” Pritchett says.

That in mind, I decide at this point that, as fun as it all seems, it’s probably best for me to just leave the forecasting to the pros.

I mean, seriously, being a politics writer isn’t the easiest job in the world, either, but at least nobody gets mad at me if the sun doesn’t come up tomorrow.


Chris Graham is the executive editor of The Augusta Free Press and The New Dominion.

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