Wind storm may have set record

Posted: Wednesday, March 19, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) Winds that hammered Southcentral Alaska last week may have been the strongest gusts ever measured at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.

The National Weather Service is reconsidering its wind warning standards and looking for other observations of strong winds in the city. The previous airport record of 75 mph hit during a similar storm on March 3, 1989.

We're going to look real hard at how our office responded,'' said meteorologist-in-charge Bob Hopkins. I think our warning criteria are going to have to be changed a little bit. We did not forecast the magnitude of this event.''

The frigid blast scoured the region after high pressure in the Russian Arctic meshed with low pressure in the Gulf of Alaska. Strong winds roared south from mountain passes, causing millions of dollars in damage beginning Wednesday night.

The weather service had issued a wind advisory but did not upgrade to a formal warning of possible serious damage until that night, Hopkins said.

I'd like to say my office had a warning out earlier than it did,'' he added. There are a lot of variables in it and most of them don't reveal themselves until it's almost too late. But that's my job.''

As the storm ramped up, a wind gauge at a fire station in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough recorded gusts of 99 mph. When winds hit 109 mph 150 feet above the ground at the international airport, around 11:30 p.m., the control tower was evacuated and the airport closed until the next morning.

Official peak winds at ground level in Anchorage reached only 71 mph, as reported by an automated observation system just south of the airport.

That system, standard at airports across the country, averages wind gusts over five-second periods because engineers believe the interval gives the most useful and accurate data for pilots trying to land or take off, Hopkins said. It takes a battery of other weather measurements at the same time.

Some meteorologists say the device should average wind gusts over shorter intervals.

It gives the wrong impression,'' said Dave Goldstein, warning coordination meteorologist in Anchorage. A gust ramps up and then it ramps down. An average can miss the true peak.''

With roofing torn off, windows broken and trees toppled, the winds had to be much higher in downtown and west Anchorage, he added. The true damage starts to hit at about 75 mph.''

Devices that measure wind instantly reported much higher speeds.

One older model anemometer at the airport registered winds of 86 mph Wednesday night. Air traffic controllers saw that reading about the same time as the 109 mph gust that prompted them to shut down for the night.

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