Jana Harper | You Call It A Cloud

Jennifer Stark

JenniferJennifer Stark is the Meteorologist in Charge for the National Weather Service station in Pueblo, CO.

December 19, 2013
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Jennifer Stark:
National Weather Service, Pueblo, this is Jennifer.

Jana Harper:
Hi Jennifer, it’s Jana.

JS:
Hi. How are you?

JH:
Good. How are you?

JS:
I’m fine, thanks.

JH:
Thank you so much for agreeing to talk with me again.

JS:
Oh, you’re welcome. I’m sorry it didn’t work out the last time you were through here. What with the government [having been] shut down.

JH:
Will you just give me, starting out with, a little bit of background about yourself and how you came to be in the position that you’re in now? And what it is that you do?

JS:
All right. I’ll try to keep it on the shorter side. I’m the Meteorologist in Charge here of the National Weather Service office in Pueblo, so that means I’m the local manager of this office. And we have a staff of 22 people including myself. I’ve been in the Weather Service now for a little over 20 years.

JH:
What does it mean to be the Meteorologist in Charge?

JS:
Well, it means that I’m the manager. I’m in charge of hiring, personnel actions, budget, equipment, as well as setting the priorities. So there is a leadership and management aspect to it. Some of it is just administrative stuff, some of it is more day-to-day forecasting and providing service to our customers, and occasionally I still work the forecast desk. I might work a midnight shift or an evening shift or a day shift or a weekend or a holiday. Just depending on where I am needed to fill in.

JH:
When you look back over your childhood, were you fascinated by the weather, or how did you even get to the point of deciding to go into meteorology?

JS:
Well that’s an interesting question because I would say that most of the meteorologists that you meet, many of them had a childhood fascination with weather: they may have even been weather geeks taking temperature and precipitation measurements at home when they were children. But I wasn’t one of them. I would say that I really started getting interested in meteorology when I was in college because I initially went to school to be a pilot.

JH:
Oh!

JS:
And I had to take weather and I had to take a lot of math and science classes for that. And then flying became very expensive. It’s very expensive to rent a plane and instructors, especially as you get in the more advanced, bigger planes that have multi-engines. So I didn’t have quite the money I needed to finish all my flying: you can get student loans for school, but you can’t get student loans for the flying part. So, I didn’t have the resources to finish so I went back to the University of Northern Colorado and went into meteorology. And I would say that primarily the reason why is that I wanted to do something important, that I found meaningful; something that had an impact on people’s lives. And I do believe the weather has that impact whether it’s wearing coats on a cold, winter day, to actual life-saving weather situations.

JH:
Well, did you get a chance to look at those photos that I sent you?

JS:
I did, yes. I have them on my computer in front of me. So did you want to know what they are or did you already figure out what they are?

JH:
Well, I would love it if you would describe to me what you see and for you to tell me what they are.

JS:
Okay. Well, my perception is that they are lenticular clouds. Lenticulars form where you have a mountain range or even just one mountain because sometimes they form over Mt. Rainier. They form when you have a stable moist air mass and the wind is flowing across the mountain because that barrier is going to force the air upwards. As it is forced upwards, it condenses, and as it condenses it forms a cloud. And then as the air descends in the lee of the mountains, it dries out again because it warms. So that little cloud remains, and it remains stationary right over the top or just in the lee of the mountain or mountain ranges. And really, for pilots, it’s a pretty big signal that there’s a lot of turbulence: you may not want to fly in the direction of the mountains because there’s going to be a lot of up and down motion and it can be pretty bumpy. The winds can be pretty strong and erratic. So I believe it’s a lenticular cloud: that one prominent cloud feature.

JH:
Do they tend to form in the same place? You are describing them on a certain side of the mountain in relation to the wind.

JS:
Yeah, it’s going to be when the wind is flowing perpendicular to the mountain range. So it’s forced up and over that barrier and usually they form right at the top of the mountain or you may see them on the down-wind side as well. But some of the other lenticular cloud formations—they might just look like a little hat just sitting on top of the mountain. Sometimes there can be more than one: it can even look like stacked plates. They can form at different levels too: you can have mid-level clouds, which would be an altocumulus. You could have cirrocumulus or you could even have a stratocumulus. Cirrocumulus would be real high about 20,000 feet or higher, altocumulus would be about 15,000 feet, and stratocumulus would be low, like three or five or six thousand  feet.

JH:
So knowing that that’s on Mt. Blanca, how high would you say that lenticular is?

JS:
I would say it’s probably an altocumulus and to base it on looking at the other clouds around, that’s another indication to me that it’s mid-level.

JH:
Okay.

JS:
I would say it’s probably 15,000-18,000 feet.

JH:
And how fast do you think those winds are going?

JS:
Oh, if the jet’s moving across or we have a little jet streak, it could be 70 to 120 knots. It could be really moving along pretty good at those elevations.

JH:
Wow.

JS:
Yeah. It depends on the time of year. If it’s summer, the jet might not be quite as strong, although occasionally we can have the jet come a little further south and be pretty strong and that might be a severe weather day. In the winter, though, we routinely see the jet streams further south and quite a bit stronger.

JH:
My sense is that these were taken in the late spring.

JS:
Okay.

JH:
One of the pilots I talked to, when I showed him the photo, the first word he said was, “wicked.”

JS:
Yeah, exactly.

JH:
And then he said, “Yeah, I would probably stay away from that.”

JS:
Yeah, definitely.

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