Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) wants the U.S. to have the world’s best weather forecasts and is using her position in Congress to arm the National Weather Service (NWS) with the tools to generate them.
At a press event, at the NOAA National Center for Weather and Climate Prediction, in College Park, Md. Tuesday, Mikulski and weather leaders from the public and private sector convened to announce major upgrades to the computers that run U.S. weather forecast models.
These upgrades will result in a “game-changing” three-fold increase in computing power by mid-July this year and ten-fold increase by the end of 2014, said Louis Uccellini, director of the National Weather Service.
The upgrades wouldn’t have been possible without a $23.7 million cash infusion into the NWS, which Mikulski championed after Superstorm Sandy ravaged the East Coast.
“I rallied my colleagues on a bi-partisan basis to put money in the Federal checkbook to come up with the computational capacity to have a new American model that will be the fastest, the most accurate, have the greatest resolution of any facility in the world,” Mikulski said.
The superior performance of the primary European computer model in its forecasts for Sandy prompted the support, Mikulski said.
“We saw that European model was faster, had more accuracy in hindsight than ours,” Mikulski said. “You know what, we love Europe, they’re great NATO allies, but I’ll be darned if they’re going to have a better weather model than the United States of America.”
Just last week, the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting (ECMWF) announced it entered into a contract with Cray, a supercomputer maker, to substantially boost its computing power.
“We might have a race with the Europeans and we welcome that,” Mikulski said. “We’re in the Olympics of the weather…”
Despite the new funds to improve computing under the Sandy Supplemental, the NWS faces major challenges in executing its mission due to a constrained budget environment. An agency-wide hiring freeze has left offices short-staffed and some programs have been slashed.
Mikulski stressed the budget sequester must end.
“As long as we have sequester, there will be these tight lids on personnel activities at NOAA,” Mikulski said. “I think real solution is bi-partisan effort to cancel the sequester. Both the House and Senate need to come together.”
A long-time advocate for a healthy National Weather Service, Mikulski emphasized the importance of weather information:
“We feel that one of the most important jobs that your government can do is help people save lives and save property. That is why we need accurate weather forecasts.”
Mikulski was joined at the event by the director of the National Weather Service, Louis Uccellini, acting NOAA administrator Kathryn Sullivan, newly appointed Secretary of the Department of Commerce, Penny Pritzker, and The Weather Channel’s hurricane expert, Bryan Norcross.