The National Weather Service is on a hunt for killer tornadoes, using the latest technology to warn people sooner and creating a model that could be used by other agencies to make predictions on everything from health to the economy.
From its perch with satellites observing a developing storm to creating computer models to analyze and predict tornadoes, the NWS wants to make sure the public is no longer a hostage to the weather that can bring loss of life and massive physical destruction in seconds.
“There have been tremendous changes not just in weather service but in meteorology. It is mind boggling,” said Greg Carbin, the Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the NWS Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. (see video above). “It used to be that weather reports came from weather stations. Now there are all sorts of automated services. Computers can digest the data, and they can make the models look like the real atmosphere.”
Technology and the ability to harness big data has drastically changed U.S. weather forecasting in the past half-century, allowing longer lead time for predictions and earlier alerts as a result.
This year, NWS will begin pushing text notifications of hazardous weather conditions to those within a severe weather area using mobile technology to identify people at risk.
NWS has been sharing its strides through close working relationships with Canada and Mexico. It regularly hosts visitors from the international community, including the United Kingdom, China and South Korea, Carbin said.
NWC uses vastly improved Doppler radar and computer technology to analyze the huge amount of data collected by NWS on the ground and in the sky and with a geostationary orbiting satellite to be launched in 2014. NWS has benefited from the expanding power of computers that collect a lot more data than yesterday’s equipment.
“When you are attempting to predict the future stage of the atmosphere, you have to do the mathematics,” Carbin said. “You have to do a lot of number crunching. The improvements in forecast directly related to improvements in computer speed.”
NWS’s weather forecasting could be a model for other federal agencies that are developing their own prediction models that could be used to predict behavior for everything from economic data to the path of a disease.
“We have federal agencies involved in forecasting efforts that have nothing to do with weather but their missions are similar to ours,” Carbin said.
That could include agencies such as the Federal Reserve Board that measures long-term economic data and health care outcomes that could chart the future of a disease outbreak in a population. Carbin said agencies could find similarities between the weather data and their own by identifying a key phrase. The tornado model and an agency model both could be sensitive to outside conditions such as storms or fluctuating economic news.
“You are trying to predict the future. How you go about that is different in different endeavors,” Carbin said.
“What’s interesting about economic data is it shares the dynamic of being difficult to predict behavior,” he said. But for any prediction, there is “no magic bullet,” Carbin added. “What you need to look at is what is the common characteristic.”
When it comes to the weather, field research figures into the model as well.
NWS staffers are out in the field at all times. There’s a lot of attention to detail and many opportunities to infuse new ideas into the NWS, said Dr. John Snow, professor of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma.
The weather service “remains close to the problems they try to address,” said Snow, who is currently training a dozen Nigerian weather forecasters in how to use radar to forecast the weather.
NWS is also experimenting with a research project called Vortex2, an effort for the agency to gather data during the formation of tornadoes and develop a better understanding about the pending storm.
In the experiment, which began last year, an armada of vehicles, with instruments measuring the atmosphere, was positioned at a potential tornado area to collect data about the environment during storm formation. The mission included small helium-filled balloons with instruments to measure temperatures, wind and other weather points. Vortex2 data continues to be analyzed.
Vortex2 will improve tornado forecasting, said Jack Williams, founding weather editor at USA Today and author of many books on weather.
“They can do quite well at predicting conditions for tornadoes,” Williams said. “They don’t know where and when it might happen until just before it happens. That’s a big challenge of storm prediction.”