Tucked away in a quiet, leafy backyard between Broadway and Piedmont Avenue is a weather station that pinpoints rainfall, temperatures and wind conditions for the Piedmont Avenue/North Oakland area.
Dr. John Monteverdi teaches meteorology at San Francisco State University and, on the side, provides weather information to the National Weather Service (NWS), the Weather Underground (TemescalNorth station) and — most directly for local residents — through his own website, Oakland CA Weather Conditions.
He's also a professional stormchaser. More about that in a minute.
If you live in Piedmont or nearby, Monteverdi's data are much more likely to reflect conditions at your house than the usual weather reports. Here's one reason why:
Rainfall depends a lot on elevation — the higher the elevation, the more rain. Most weather reports use information from a station at Oakland International Airport, Monteverdi explained during a lull between rains this week. That's pretty much the lowest point in Oakland. The elevation at Piedmont City Hall, by comparison, is 300 feet.
At 176' elevation, Monteverdi's equipment consistently records higher rainfall levels. Official NWS records put Oakland's average annual rainfall at 22.5 inches. Monteverdi's data, which extends back to 1986, shows that the Piedmont Avenue area receives an average of three inches more rain (25.7") a year.
Most accurate of all, Monteverdi said, is his simplest piece of equipment, known simply as a rain gauge. (It's the short tube at the left in the photo above.) He has to empty the gauge and measure the rainfall by hand.
The larger equipment uses a "tipping bucket" gauge which automatically empties itself at preset levels. But rain continues to fall while the bucket tips, and if it's raining hard, the missed raindrops can add up to a significant amount, Monteverdi said.
Incidentally, if you check Monteverdi's website, "today's rainfall" is the amount that's fallen since midnight.
His wind records are less accurate, because his equipment is on a slope sheltered by trees and buildings, Monteverdi cautioned.
"It would have to be on the roof to be really accurate," he said.
How Accurate Are Weather Forecasts?
Very accurate in the short term, said Monteverdi, if you stick to official forecasts directly from the National Weather Service (NWS).
The NWS tracks each of its forecasters for their accuracy, he said.
"They use their wits, intelligence, training and computer models to make forecasts," he added.
Those add up to generally accurate forecasts for about five days ahead, Monteverdi said. At 10 days in the future, predictions still have some value — but past that, it's a toss-up.
One problem, he said, is that many media forecasts rely not on the NWS but on data from a commercial source, AccuWeather. And while some TV weather forecasters are trained meteorologists, others are not.
The American Meteorological Society, the main professional organization for the field, has a certification process for broadcast forecasters, Monteverdi said. You'll often be able to see the AMS seal on-screen if you're watching a report by a certified forecaster.
Among his favorite local weather people: Bill Martin at KTVU Channel 2, who received his meteorology education in the SF State program where Monteverdi teaches.
Professionally, Monteverdi is a synoptic meteorologist, someone who looks at large-scale weather patterns at a common point in time. He focuses on tornadoes or, in meteorologists' parlance, "tornadic thunderstorms." That interest sends him chasing after twisters for about 10 days each year.
Working with a meteorologist partner, Monteverdi uses Denver as a starting point for his stormchasing trips in late May and early June, the peak of tornado season. Depending on their own forecasts, they might drive for 12 hours to catch up with a tornado.
"But we don't do stupid things like the stormchasers in movies or on TV," he emphasized.
What Monteverdi does intead is photograph the tornadoes he finds; his home is decorated with stunning blow-ups of his photos.
"If I can document a tornado with photos, then my forecast was right," he said.