The source of most weather forecasts delivered on your TV news and smartphones are supercomputers housed in Reston and Orlando. Congress has approved large parts of NOAA’s spending plan under the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 that will direct $23.7 million (or $25 million before sequestration), a “Sandy supplemental,” to the NWS for forecasting equipment and computer infrastructure.
“This is a breakthrough moment for the National Weather Service and the entire U.S. weather enterprise in terms of positioning itself with the computing capacity and more sophisticated models we’ve all been waiting for,” said Louis Uccellini, director of the Weather Service.
Last year, criticism began to emerge concerning the inferior accuracy of the NWS’s Global Forecast System (GFS) model — run on earlier versions of the supercomputers — compared with the model run at the European Center for Medium Range Forecasting (ECMWF), based in Britain. The GFS and ECMWF models are, by far, the most heavily relied on by meteorologists around the world.
Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington and an expert on numerical weather prediction, has called the standing of the GFS model “third rate” and “a national embarrassment.”
The $23.7 million in improvements to NWS’s forecasting systems from the Sandy supplemental will facilitate a more than tenfold increase in the capacity of the supercomputer running the GFS model by the 2015 fiscal year.
“This is an extraordinarily positive development and will give the National Weather Service the potential to lead the world in numerical weather prediction,” Mass said in an e-mail.
The increased computing power will enable drastic improvements in the GFS model’s resolution, Uccellini said. Higher-resolution models pick up on weather features a lower resolution might miss, like some high-altitude steering currents.
The $23.4 million appropriated to the NWS for forecasting improvements is just a small fraction of the $309.7 million NOAA will receive as part of the Sandy relief legislation. For example, funds will support ocean observing and coastal monitoring, disaster assistance for fisheries and upgrades to two NOAA hurricane hunter aircraft, among other initiatives.
NOAA said sequestration will not interrupt “mission critical” activities. It proposes agency-wide furloughs — including forecasters — on July 5 and 19 and Aug. 5 and 30. But employees who work in offices that are staffed 24 hours a day would stagger furlough days.
Steve Tracton and Brian McNoldy of the Post’s Capital Weather Gang contributed to this report.