Why Weather Forecasting Is About To Get Better

storm puzzle pieceThe overall goal of the National Weather Service, according to Glenn White, a meteorologist at NOAA’s Environmental Modeling Center, is to safeguard life and property.

Another is to have the best forecasting model in the world. “Forty years ago, when they first developed computer models for the weather,” White says, “one model took 27 hours of computer time to generate a 24-hour forecast.” This was not very efficient, to say the least. But technology has improved by leaps and bounds over the past half-century, and the latest forecasting tool added to NOAA’s U.S. Global Forecasting System (GFS) is a 4D model that adds time as the fourth dimension to the 3D spatial grid that’s currently in use.

Out with the old

The old GFS model output a forecast every three hours, but the new 4D model delivers a more precise hourly forecast with a range of up to five days into the future. “Before, we could say you’ll have rain sometime between 6 and 9 a.m.,” says White. “But now we will tell you which hour, whether it’s between 6 and 7, 7 and 8, 8 and 9. So that’s a better estimate of when the rain would have an impact on, for instance, people driving to work.”

This powerful new model increases the accuracy and timeliness of the organization’s forecasting ability. “America’s needs for weather, climate and water information and prediction are growing,” says Louis Uccellini, director of the National Weather Service, “and we’re advancing our capabilities to meet current and future demand.”

Still, weather forecasting will always have its critics, especially when a prediction doesn’t play out exactly as the public expects. “Weather is always local,” says White.

He recalls Winter Storm Juno, which in 2015 was predicted to be a major blizzard that would threaten New York City. “We forecast two feet of snow in New York City…and they got eight inches,” explains White. “The forecast was great for New England, but a lot of people viewed it as bad.”

In with the new

The challenge White sees is how the National Weather Service can best communicate with the general public. The new 4D GFS model, which is just one of the upgrades being instituted by NOAA this summer, is likely to help. “This model will make the short-range forecasts align with the observations,” says White. “It will make a better analysis of the atmosphere, so we understand it better, and we can then make [improved] forecasts based upon that.”

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By Jonah Flicker

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