U.S. and Australia loaning each other Incident Meteorologists

From KPQ News:

“An innovative and international approach to fighting wildfires is underway with specialty meteorologists lending their skills both in Washington and in Australia.

Incident Meteorologist
An Incident Meteorologist at a wildland fire. File photo from NOAA.

The program takes four specialty forecasters called Incident Meteorologists from the Spokane office and sends them to Australia for weeks at a time, lending skills to help firefighters tamp down wildfires as ferocious as we see across the West. Only 85 Incident Meteorlogist specalists exist in the entire United States. Meteorologist John Fox has just returned from a several week stint in Australia trading the latest wildfire-fighting forecasting skills with the Aussies. One of the Spokane incident meterologists is stationed in Adelaide Australia right now.”

Weather forecasters embed with Special Forces

“Know the weather,” Sun Tzu advised around 320 B.C. “Your victory will then be total.”

On a large wildland fire there will most likely be a weather forecaster embedded with the Incident Management Team. Called an Incident Meteorologist, or IMET, they provide invaluable information about the weather that affects the behavior of the fire. Their localized forecasts, called “spot weather forecasts”, are enhanced by environmental data collected at the fire scene combined with a massive nationwide database of other observations and the output from computer models.

Incident Meteorologist
An Incident Meteorologist at a wildland fire. NOAA photo.

Since weather, along with topography and fuels, has a huge effect on what a wildfire does, Fire Behavior Analysts and Incident Management Teams rely heavily on IMETs. Their forecasts can help prevent firefighters from choosing a bad location from which to make a stand, or provide information that can help determine if a proposed burnout operation will be successful.

The military has relied on meteorologists to varying degrees over the last couple of hundred years. George Washington crossed the Delaware River during a blizzard so his troops would not be detected, and changed the course of the Revolutionary War. In 1979 the military attempted to rescue 52 Americans held captive in Iran, but instead of embedding weather forecasters before the operation began, they relied on desk meteorologists from thousands of miles away in Nebraska, who failed to detect or forecast shrouds of chalk-white dust, invisible to the satellites above, billowing for hundreds of miles near the surface. Three aircraft suffered accidents when trying to land or take off from the remote site — the mission failed before it really got started.

In recent years the military has again discovered the importance of having accurate weather forecasts, and the necessity of collecting weather observations and making forecasts from the scene of the action.

Before Seal Team Six raided the lair of Osama bin Laden, at least two Special Operations Weather Technicians, known as SOWT (pronounced sow-tee), were on the ground in Pakistan before the rest of the team arrived in their helicopters.

Special Operations Weather Team member
A Special Operations Weather Team member collects weather data using specialized equipment. Photo via NBC News.

NBC News has an excellent article about the SOWTs and the important role they are playing within the military. Below is an excerpt:


“On a moonless night in October 2001, an American helicopter lifted off from an airbase in Uzbekistan, banking south on a covert mission into Afghanistan. Inside was one of America’s most elite and unknown special operators, hand-selected for a job so important that the wider war on terror hinged on its success.

In New York and Washington, D.C., the funerals continued. Families gave up hope of a miracle rescue in the rubble of the World Trade Center and Pentagon. But if this soldier succeeded he would never shoot his gun and no one outside the military would know his work.

He was a weatherman.

More precisely, he was a special operations weather technician, known as a SOWT (pronounced sow-tee). As the Department of Defense’s only commando forecasters, SOWTs gather mission-impossible environmental data from some of the most hostile places on Earth.

They embed with Navy SEALs, Delta Force and Army Rangers. Ahead of major operations they also head in first for a go/no-go forecast. America’s parachutes don’t pop until a SOWT gives the all-clear.

That was Brady Armistead’s job as his helicopter rumbled toward a strip of desert 80 miles south of Kandahar, the capital of the Taliban government. He had a satellite forecast calling for clear skies. But satellite forecasts depend on ground data, too, and there was nothing from Afghanistan.

Five years earlier, when the Taliban seized power, it granted sanctuary to Al Qaeda and ruled by a strict interpretation of the Koran. No television or movies, mandatory burkas for women and long beards for men — plus no weather reports.

The Taliban considered forecasting to be sorcery. They fired the country’s 600 or so professional meteorologists, shelled the Afghan Meteorological Authority, and burned the country’s vast climatological archives.

That created a blind spot in global weather data, which is typically pooled and shared between the world’s governments. The Pentagon felt it had a fix in SOWTs like Armistead, jump-ready scientists with the God-given guts to do the weather behind enemy lines…”