By Tom Brown
MIAMI (Reuters) - The U.S. National Weather Service is getting a quantum jump in computing power that will significantly improve its forecasting and storm tracking abilities to better protect the country from severe weather.
"This is a game changer," Louis Uccellini, who took over as director of the National Weather Service in February, told Reuters in an interview, calling it "the biggest increase in operational capacity that we've ever had."
The Weather Services' global and national weather prediction efforts have long been hampered by aging technology and a lack of computer power to support day-to-day operations. But Uccellini said that was all due to change through upgrades of its IBM system that will give it more than 25 times the computer power it has today.
Over the next two years, the results should be apparent through enhancements across the whole range of products and services the Weather Service produces, focusing on everything from routine weather to tornadoes and hurricanes to floods, droughts and blizzards.
With the U.S. economy vulnerable to severe weather events that can cost billions of dollars a year, the boost in computing power is sure to come as good news to many, especially given concerns that climate change is fueling more extreme weather.
That includes millions of people living in hurricane danger zones and U.S. oil and gas producers in the Gulf of Mexico, which is frequently threatened by tropical cyclones.
The Gulf accounts for about 20 percent of U.S. oil production. About 30 percent of U.S. natural gas processing plant capacity and 40 percent of the country's refining capacity is concentrated on the Gulf Coast.
A primary IBM machine in Reston, Virginia, and an auxiliary computer in Orlando, Florida, both will be getting the upgrades, which were largely made possible through $25 million in funding from the "Hurricane Sandy supplemental" bill recently approved by Congress, Uccellini said.
He spoke from the Weather Service's headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, on the eve of a report issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on Wednesday about its performance up to and during Hurricane Sandy last year.
The Weather Service is a branch of NOAA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
To be sure, meteorologists say the Weather Service and its Miami-based National Hurricane Center did a good job forecasting the onslaught of Sandy, which the NOAA report said had caused more than 200 deaths and more than $50 billion in damages in the United States.
But the report makes no mention of the fact that a European forecast predicted Sandy's so-called "left hook", which put it on a track from the east into New Jersey and New York, days ahead of the Weather Service, which initially indicated the storm would remain out at sea.
'SECOND TO NONE'
That lag, which Uccellini himself has described as "a miss," raised complaints among many in the meteorological community about the United States having lost its edge in weather forecasting.
The United States was a pioneer in so-called numerical weather prediction, or the science of using computer models and mathematical simulations of the atmosphere for weather forecasting.
But the National Weather Service lost its leadership in computer modeling years ago, especially when it comes to medium-range projections, and Uccellini acknowledged as much in his comments to Reuters.
Performance measures consistently show the United States trailing the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) when it comes to providing the most accurate global forecasting model, he said.
"They are the No. 1 model, there's no question about that," Uccellini said.
Computer models, which help meteorologists develop forecasts, simulate how weather conditions might develop based on an initial set of atmospheric and oceanic conditions. The highest resolution models, which can tie up huge amounts of supercomputing resources, pick up on more fine-grain details and tend to produce the most accurate predictions.
"A whole string of model improvements and enhancements" would be made possible through the increase in the Weather Service's computing power, Uccellini said, adding that the U.S. goal was to catch up with the Reading, England-based ECMWF, and ultimately to surpass it in modeling skill.
"For the first time that I recall, we will actually have computers that are bigger than the European center and we'll be running our models at higher resolution than they're running with improved physics packages and improved data assimilation," he said.
"Our goal is to exceed, to be second to none," Uccellini said.
He gave no time frame for meeting that goal, but Uccellini knows the challenges ahead. For 13 years he headed the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, the Weather Service office responsible for computer models and global forecast guidance, before taking over as head of the whole organization.
Cliff Mass, an atmospheric sciences professor at the University of Washington and a leading critic of NOAA and the Weather Service, was skeptical about surpassing the ECMWF in computer modeling skill anytime soon, at a time of fast-changing technological innovation.
But he said the increase in the Weather Service's computing power marked "a big advance" nonetheless.
"It's definitely a big positive. There's plenty else wrong in the Weather Service and NOAA, don't get me wrong. But this is certainly going to help a lot," Mass said.
Many of Mass's critiques of the Weather Service, which he writes about in closely watched blog postings, were echoed in a report issued on Tuesday by the National Academy of Public Administration, a non-profit group that helps federal, state and local governments grapple with public management challenges.
Titled "Forecast for the Future: Assuring the Capacity of the National Weather Service," the report to Congress recommends establishing a federal advisory committee to help implement changes aimed at improving operations and services across the agency.
A Weather Service spokesman, citing budget constraints, said creating a formal advisory committee may be difficult but called the report positive overall. "We see the study as reaffirming and supportive of our strategic plan, goals and vision of creating a Weather-Ready Nation," spokesman Christopher Vaccaro said in an email statement to Reuters.
The National Academy of Sciences highlighted many perceived shortcomings in the Weather Service in a hallmark report last year, which said it had been "lax in implementing changes."
(Editing by David Adams and Jim Loney)