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Posted at 02:36 PM ET, 10/16/2012

Opening of NOAA’s Center for Weather and Climate Prediction: potential game changer in forecasting


(John T. Consoli/University of Maryland)
A ribbon cutting ceremony on Monday (October 15) marked the official opening of the NOAA’s new world-class center dedicated to advancing the state of weather and climate science and transitioning research findings to improved weather forecasts and related information.

Related: NOAA press release on the new CWPC

Named the NOAA Center for Weather and Climate Prediction (NCWCP), the 268,000 square-foot facility is located on the grounds of the University of Maryland in College Park. Just a short ride away is NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC). As intended, the new center’s location is ideal for enabling increased mutually beneficial collaborations with the intellectual resources of the local academic community at the University of Maryland and NASA scientists and staff.


Louis Uccellini (far left) cutting the ribbon officially opening NOAA’s Center for Weather and Climate Prediction helpers including The Honorable Barbara Mikulski, Maryland U.S. Senator (in front of hanging NOAA flap), immediately to her right, Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca M. Blank, and immediately to her left, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, NOAA Administrator. (John T. Consoli/University of Maryland)

The opportunities for advances with the opening of NCWCP are especially significant for the National Weather Service’s National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) and therefore to the entire U.S. weather enterprise. NCEP is the single indispensible national (civilian) hub in development of advanced computer model-based prediction systems and operations.

The models are the backbone of virtually all publically available (at no cost) National Weather Service (NWS) forecast products and services. Not to be overlooked is that they are the primary basis for most specifically tailored “value-added” packages of weather information used by media and commercial weather concerns.

For NCEP the move could not be soon enough. Housed beginning in 1975 an eight story non-descript and now archaic building just off the beltway in Camp Springs, Md, it survived occupancy in an increasingly depressing and physically uncomfortable (and dangerous) environment. In his 1996 book, “Braving the Elements: The Stormy History of American Weather ,” David Laskin wrote: “from the outside the place looks like one of those suburban professional complexes where dentists and insurance salespeople set up shop. The one clue that something special happens here is an inconspicuous sign over the entrance: World Weather Building (WWB).” (1)

Having worked at the WWB myself for close to 30 years, I assure you this is probably the mildest critique one could invoke to describe the exterior of the physical premises. More importantly, the interior of WWB long ago outgrew the needs for office space, meeting rooms, and space for new equipment and associated electrical connections.

Despite these less than conducive conditions, the gains over the years in improving the reliability and accuracy of NCEP prediction models have been remarkable , including development of the world’s first operational global and regional ensemble forecast systems. Nevertheless, there is equally no question that over those same years the accumulative deterioration within WWB made it virtually impossible to achieve further advances otherwise obtainable.

The move to NCWCP not only eliminates these effective caps on NCEP advances, it opens the flood gates to new possibilities. One’s first view of NCWCP in comparison to WWB is like seeing a mirage of a fanciful alternate universe. Passing through the main entrance evokes the same feeling.

The building currently houses approximately 825 NOAA employees, contractors, and a small contingent of visiting scientists. But sufficient space and technological resources exist (e.g., workstations) to enable bringing aboard personnel necessary to accelerate advances in weather prediction.

Additionally, NCWCP has nearly 40 modern conference rooms with internal and external telecommunications, a research library, an exquisitely designed and fashioned 464 seat auditorium, 7 break rooms, a hot food deli, health unit and fitness center.

While all this might sound exorbitant, consider the following: First, one can readily see the buoyancy, spring in their steps, high morale and excitement of personnel rarely observed in WWB. More importantly, as mentioned above, a major goal of the new location is to spur collaboration beneficial to all parties involved. One of the major means of accomplishing these ends is to attract exceptionally qualified visiting scientists from academia and other national and international centers of environmental research and prediction.

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Commentary: Can NCWPC’s goals be met in constrained budget environment?

There is no question the NCWCP makes possible opportunities for advances not possible otherwise. However, exploiting those opportunities face the challenge of being frustrated by budget constraints that preclude relatively small increases in funding necessary to effectively leverage advantages the new center offers.

Notwithstanding its top notch scientific personnel, WWB was never especially attractive, even if it did have the work space and support for meaningful visiting scientist program. The enticement of NCWCP is unquestionably a totally new world in this regard. Additionally, it’s obvious that NCWCP will be an irresistible enticement - like WWB never could be - for becoming a “first choice” venue for organizers of professional meetings, conferences, seminars, etc.

Yet NCEP’s limited visiting scientist program is unfunded; that is supported “out of hide”. That support includes providing personnel to bring visitors up to speed in NCEP model codes and computing systems. The research being conducted by visitors may also be significantly compromised by limits on available computer time.

Furthermore, the current level of staffing (especially an insufficient number of “permanent” federal employees with necessary skills and expertise) and computer resources are inadequate for addressing the needs and requirements of NCEP’s basic mission. (2)

At present, the European Center for Medium Range Weather Forecasting (ECMWF) is the world’s leading modeling center, largely reflecting its ability to attract and support visiting scientists ever since its beginnings in the late 70s.

Louis Uccellini, NCEP director, believes the NCWCP will help the U.S. gain ground on the Europeans.

“The people I met on a recent visit to the ECMWF stated they were jealous as they looked around their older building,” Uccellini said. “Nevertheless, we still have some work to do to catch up, which we will, as we settle into this modern stunning facility that we all can be proud of.”

The bottom line is that without some incremental increase in budgets, NCEP will be unable to meaningfully exploit the opportunities for advances now possible given the physical resources at NCWCP.

It’s not possible at this time to provide an estimate of actual dollar costs for specific improvements. However, there is little question that the level of investment is minimal relative to the overall NOAA/NWS budget. The returns in terms of enhanced products and services becoming available for protecting the public from extreme weather and climate events most certainly far outweigh the costs.

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Additional notes

* NCWCP occupants include the National Weather Service’s National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP), the Office of Atmospheric Research’s Air Research Laboratory (ARL), and National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service (NESDIS).

* The new building incorporates sunshades into the design on the south side of the building to optimize energy performance. Two-thirds of the roof surface is “green roof” covered with low growing plants for better insulation and protection. At the old WWB, occupants (like me) on the sunny side would experience excessive warmth while those on the opposite side would be draped in sweaters and coats.

* Transferring operations from WWB to NCWPC without interruption or degradation of services, a seemingly impossible mission given details of the tasks at hand, was accomplished without one hiccup - a process completely transparent to the outside world.

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Footnotes

(1) Laskins’ 1996 description is valid now as it was then: “this building is as critical to our nation’s weather as the Pentagon is to our defense. The National Meteorological Center is where national weather comes into focus. All the maps you see in newspapers….all those long range outlooks they flash up on the Weather Channel: they all originate here. This is where the global networks converge; this is where the megacomputers are run; this is where the nation’s weather happens: the NMC is Weather Central.”

(2) Model development, testing and evaluation of prospective model upgrades, incredibly detailed and time consuming process in transitioning research systems to operations, post analysis and diagnosis of the performance of operational and experimental systems, data assimilation (gathering, processing and transforming multi source observations of the global atmosphere for initializing models (00 hour forecast), developing user friendly products derived from model output, etc., etc.

By  |  02:36 PM ET, 10/16/2012

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