Snowmobilers are out on trails often for long periods of time in some of the most remote and rugged areas of Maine, in always-changing weather conditions. That is why what they see and hear is so important to the National Weather Service offices in Gray and Caribou.

“This is the first year that our offices in Maine have tried to open the door of communication to snowmobilers, logging companies, ATVers and other groups that work or recreate in the outdoors to be an extra set of eyes and ears for us out in the woods. This is such a new idea. It came out of much brainstorming about how to get weather condition reports from extremely rural locations,” said Mike Cantin, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Caribou. “We make our forecasts and to get feedback from snowmobilers is a good way to find out how accurate we were. For example, if we predicted high winds, maybe they saw trees down on the trail. If we predicted heavy rain, a trail could be flooded.”

Cantin met with outdoor groups including the Maine Snowmobile Association, the Maine Bowhunters Association, and the North Maine Woods at the beginning of this year in Brewer to describe the Skywarn program and to encourage participation.

The program consists of nearly 290,000 trained severe-weather spotters across the United States. These volunteers help keep communities safe by providing timely and accurate reports of severe weather to the National Weather Service. These spotters provide essential information for all types of weather hazards.

Their main responsibility is to identify and describe severe local storms.

The information provided by Skywarn spotters, coupled with Doppler radar technology, improved satellite and other data, has enabled the National Weather Service to issue more timely and accurate warnings for heavy snowfall, blizzard conditions, tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and flash floods.

Although the Skywarn program has been in existence since the 1970s, this is the first time that weather service offices in Maine have used outdoor groups to gather information.

“We just started working with those groups in 2010 utilizing the Skywarn program because they are outside and we are working inside our offices,” he said. “Although we have satellites, radar and other observational equipment, the eyewitness reporting is another way for us to get information.”

Since storm systems generally move from west to east (although not always) snowmobilers in the Rangeley area could provide valuable information about snowfall and wind severity to snowmobilers in Millinocket.

“The information could potentially save lives on the trails,” said Cantin. “For example, if we have a report of downed trees or a hazardous condition, people could hear a report on the radio or television before they head out on the trails.

“Also, we are able to send e-mail or text messages to cell phones using the emergency alert system so that people can get information while there are on the trails, if they have cell phone coverage.”

People who snowmobile and recreate west and south of Bangor should report observations to the Gray office, while those north and east of Bangor should contact the Caribou office with findings.

Each year, these offices conduct trainings for volunteers who want to participate in the Skywarn program.

Although the season is over in most areas of the Maine, Cantin hopes that getting the word out to snowmobilers about the Skywarn program will encourage much more involvement in the 2010-2011 season and give them opportunities to participate in training during warmer weather.

 

Cathy Genthner is a Registered Maine Guide and licensed by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to guide snowmobile trips. She is the owner of River Bluff Camps in Medford and can be reached at:

[email protected]