Forecast for US weather prediction: brighter days ahead

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SEATTLE– There’s an old saying that people often talk about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it. Well, that’s about to change with a bill in Congress that’s expected to be signed into law this week. The hope is improving the forecast modeling abilities of government agencies and universities will lead to more lives saved and give people more warning before severe weather strikes. The bill is called the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017 and had something rare to find in Washington, D.C.– bipartisan support. “This shows you can get people on the left and the right, Republicans and Democrats, to work together on something that benefits the United States,” says Cliff Mass in his office on the 6th floor on this day overlooks on this day a slate gray sky with the soggy brick lined sidewalks of the campus below punctuated with the bright pink of cherry blossoms. Mass is not only a University of Washington professor of atmospheric sciences– he’s been pushing for this kind of legislation to get the National Weather Service and university programs like his better forecasting tools for years. Mass says he even wrote parts of the legislation heading to the President’s desk for his signature. “It is clear that we can do much better for weather forecasting and this act of Congress specifies areas that NOAA and the NWS have to work on and actually provide money to deal with some of these deficiencies. ”

The two time author, avid blogger and teacher with the booming bass voice got his undergraduate degree at Cornell in Physics in 1974 and later a PhD from the very institution where he now mentors other budding scientists. Mass says the Pacific Northwest is not as mild as our blandly soggy reputation might suggest. "We have plenty of storms, atmospheric rivers and floods and windstorms coming off the ocean." Mass says the need for better and more tools for forecasters is very real in the Pacific Northwest. For decades there were only five radar sites in all of Oregon and Washington: Whidbey Island, Spokane, Portland's west hills, Medford, and Pendleton. With our mountainous and hilly terrain, that leaves a lot of our region with large coverage gaps. Most notable, is the lack of a radar site on the Oregon coast-- which is where our biggest wind and rain events come from. "It’s not like we have no information," Mass says, "but radar is different than satellites. Radar lets you see inside a storm in a way that satellite information just doesn’t give you." Other gaps exist in Central Washington and Oregon which means forecasters can't always get a good look at blossoming summer thunderstorms on the east side of the Cascade mountains. While the bill before the President won't fund new radars, Mass says it will force the National Weather Service and their parent overseer the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to take inventory of coverage gaps and alignment of resources. "I think this legislation will lead to improvements and improve forecasting not five months from now, but probably five years from now. So I think it’s going to take time to happen, but I think it’s going to lay the steps that will tremendously improve forecasting during the next several years."

The National Weather Service office in Seattle declined to comment for this story and referred Q13 to a spokesperson in D.C. who declined to be interviewed on camera or on Skype. In a written statement, Chris Vaccarro says "this legislation positions NOAA for the future by promoting the National Weather Service's connections to the emergency management community, advancing the NWS watch and warning program, authorizing a pilot program for the use of commercial satellite data, and reauthorizating the U.S. Weather Research Program." Vaquero says, "NOAA appreciates the bipartisan Congressional support for NOAA's public safety mission, and the recognition of the importance of weather forecasting and research necessary to that mission."

The investment Congress is making would cost about 130 million dollars over two years. Mass says this will also push the NWS into "ensemble forecasting" that he says is the future of weather prediction. "Instead of running our computer models once, we can run it 50 times—each slightly differently. And that allows us to get probabilities." Mass says numerical weather prediction is the key to modern weather  forecasting. All the data from satellites, radars, surface observations that describe what the atmosphere is doing right now is what goes into these computer forecast models. The models contain equations that are based on atmospheric physics that allow the computer to take where the atmospheric conditions are now and take it forward in time. The more accurate and timely data that goes in, the better the forecast that comes out.

Mass says Superstorm Sandy in 2012 that wreaked havoc on the eastern seaboard from the New Jersey shore northward, was a great example of a huge miss for the U.S. forecast models.  "The European center they forecasted that correctly 7 to 8 days ahead of time. Our models didn’t get the solution right until about four or five days. And that’s important." That extra few days could be used to evacuate the right areas sooner-- and get essential resources correctly in place for moving them in for when a storm passes. Professor Mass says investing in more accurate longer range forecasts could save agriculture and industries across the country millions of dollars annually.

The President is expected to sign the bill into law by the end of this week.

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