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KOPN weatherman carves niche in long-range forecasting

Wednesday, February 19, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:40 p.m. CST, Wednesday, February 19, 2014
Joe Renken, the weatherman for KOPN in Columbia, sits at his recording station. Renken is a volunteer at the radio station and can predict weather up to a month in advance using the "Bering Sea Rule," which says that weather patterns in the Bering Strait region will reach mainland North America around 20 days later.

COLUMBIA — Joe Renken said he's come up with his own way of predicting weather patterns almost a month in advance and used the method to forecast Columbia's harsh February.

"I've figured out that the weather in the Bering Sea has a direct correlation to what will happen to the eastern United States in 20 days," Renken said. The "Bering Sea rule," as Renken has nicknamed it, can be used to predict general weather patterns and temperatures across the United States.

Renken, a volunteer weatherman for KOPN/89.5 FM Columbia bases his long-range forecasting on systems of atmospheric pressure over the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia.

The Bering Sea rule is a subset of what's known to meteorologists as the Pacific/North American oscillation, which looks at the ridge and trough structure of atmospheric waves that occur across the Pacific and in North America.

Low atmospheric pressures signify more unsettled weather, while high-pressure systems generally mean more stable weather for locations east of the Rockies, Renken said. The systems in the nearby Sea of Okhotsk and Kamchatka Peninsula of eastern Russia can determine weather patterns west of the Rockies.

By looking at these wave patterns, Renken said he's able to deduce potential weather systems that may occur in the U.S. 10 to 20 days ahead of time.

"I tell people when it's going to get cold, when it's going to get warm," Renken said. "I can give a general rule of thumb of when precipitation is going to come in."

Back in early January, Renken made predictions that the beginning of February would be marked by below-normal cold, with "anything from freezing rain and sleet to snow" based on his Bering Sea pattern. He also said Columbia would experience a temperature warm-up in mid-to late February, which this week's trends are reflecting.

Renken, 39, has always been fascinated with weather. He grew up in the Peoria-Bloomington area in Illinois, and was "always one of those kids outside in the storm."

He attended Concordia University in River Forest, Ill., where he put a hold on his meteorology studies to focus on his major passion at the time, youth ministry.

In 2006, Renken moved to Columbia after his wife accepted a job at MU as a surgical technologist. Renken also took a job at MU, working computer support for the pathology and anatomical sciences department.

But in 2008, Renken came across meteorology forums for AccuWeather, a private forecasting firm. Two months later, he became a volunteer moderator for the forums.

It was Renken's connection to AccuWeather that led him to meteorologists such as Mark Paquette, a long-range AccuWeather forecaster.

Before his association with Renken, Paquette said he didn't pay much attention to the correlation between the weather patterns in Bering Sea and the United States, and to his knowledge, no meteorologist had.

Now, Paquette and Renken communicate weekly to discuss the Bering Sea's weather patterns and what they will mean for future U.S. forecasts.

"Long-range forecasting is a game of uncertainty with a lot of errors," Paquette said. From what Paquette's seen, results from looking at the Bering Sea patterns have been "overwhelmingly positive."

"It's a new branch of meteorology, not 100 percent understood yet," Paquette said. "There are lots of general rules and tools people use for long-range forecasts, but I think Joe's doing great work."

Renken generates his own longer-range forecasts and broadcasts them on KOPN. He also records three- and seven-day forecasts based on the National Weather Service.

Renken tracks his forecasts and their accuracy on his blog as he pursues awareness for his "organic forecasting" and said he's working with MU's Department of Soil, Environmental and Atmospheric Sciences to research the methodology.

"I just want to get it recognized," he said.

MU atmospheric science professor Anthony Lupo is helping Renken make that happen. The pair is in the beginning stages of developing further research on the pattern.

Lupo said he'd be interested in researching the pattern "because you have this middle ground between 10 days and about a month where forecasting can be quite difficult."

Lupo is hopeful that Renken's "rule of thumb" could help fill the meteorological gaps in long-range forecasting. Where modern technology tends to rely on numerical models instead of predictive patterns, bringing back this type of method could help connect the dots in long-range forecasting, Lupo said.

"It's not to say that these rules of thumb are invalid, they just aren't used as much anymore, and I think that's a detriment to meteorology," Lupo said. "I think Joe is doing us a great service by reminding us that there are rules that work."

And while no rule in meteorology works 100 percent of the time, Lupo and Renken are confident the Bering Sea pattern will only bring benefits to the meteorological field.

"It would be yet another tool that we can use to forecast in that 10- to 30-day period," Lupo said.

Supervising editor is JohnSchneller.


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