National Weather Service Head Seeks to Improve U.S. Forecasting

By Tom Brown | March 15, 2013

Computing power gives Europeans a commanding advantage when it comes to weather forecasting and storm tracking, but the new head of the National Weather Service hopes to see the United States regain its leadership in that crucial field.

“Our global forecast system has improved over the last two years. We have specific reasons why that’s improved and we’ve got plans to continue that trend,” Louis Uccellini, who took over last month as head of the agency, told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.

The 63-year-old Uccellini, who previously headed the government’s National Centers for Environmental Prediction, acknowledged facing many headwinds. But the past president of the American Meteorological Society spoke confidently about achieving his goals, even as he laid out a complex web of challenges.

“We’re positioning ourselves to regain our leadership in the global modeling arena,” he said. “There’s bipartisan support to improve the weather enterprise in this country … even in the face of challenging budget times,” he said.

The weather service, part of the Commerce Department, provides national and local forecasts, including information on hurricanes and other storms.

The previous head of the weather service retired unexpectedly after an internal investigation found that the agency improperly shifted $36 million in funding to cover regional office expenses across the country, instead of financing forecasting and equipment upgrades.

Uccellini, who spoke by telephone from the National Weather Service headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, said the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts had long been known to produce the best computer modeling of weather systems anywhere around the globe.

SMALLER COMPUTER, BIGGER MISSION

The advantages of the supercomputer facility the European Center operates from its base in Reading, England, were clearly apparent during ‘Superstorm’ Sandy last year, when many U.S. forecasters hedged their bets about the storm’s devastating turn toward New York and New Jersey.

The high-resolution European computer model consistently forecast Sandy’s turn to the left and its impact along the densely populated Northeast U.S. coastline, days before other models.

“With the lower-resolution model that we run, the storm turned off to the right,” Uccellini said. “We didn’t capture that turn to the left until about three or four days prior to landfall … the European model was the first one to consistently point to that solution,” he added.

He said there were several reasons the European system was more accurate, but virtually all of them were linked to the National Weather Service’s overburdened and outmoded computer system it is due to start upgrading in August.

“We have a smaller computer than the European Center with a more extensive mission,” Uccellini said.

“The concern here is that we are overly relying on the European Center model for the extended-range forecast of extreme events,” he said.

“Over the course of the next year and a half, we’re going to be greatly increasing the capacity of our operational computer,” he added.

Uccellini said forecasters and weather modelers everywhere seemed to have been “caught off guard” by last year’s U.S. drought, given the speed at which it developed and its severity.

“It’s a major topic of the research community,” he said, referring to what some had taken to calling a “flash drought.”

Like Superstorm Sandy and other disastrous weather events, the drought may have been part of what Uccellini called “the new norm” in a world where weather forecasting promises to become increasingly important and difficult, due to global climate change.

“To the extent that climate change affects those events, or the likelihood of those happening, we need to factor that into our forecast process,” he said.

(Editing by David Adams and Peter Cooney)

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