Mike Smith is a meteorologist, senior vice president of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions, and the author of Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather.
The United States experiences some of the most violent weather on Earth. Want proof? Consider what happened in three short days this winter.
On February 8, a blizzard raged across the northeast United States. Winds gusted to more than 75 mph, and dumped as much 40 inches of snow. In places, there were six-foot snow drifts. More than a million people were left without power.
As the New England blizzard departed, a second blizzard moved out of the Rockies and into the Northern Plains. Hundreds of miles of interstate highways were closed. On the afternoon of February 10th, this blizzard moved into the Upper Midwest. At roughly the same time, eight devastating tornadoes cut a swath of destruction through the South, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.
Fortunately, weather science has developed a storm warning system that saves thousands of lives each year. In part, that’s because people can save their lives from a flash flood, lightning, or high winds in a matter of seconds. A 15-second dash to the basement is enough to survive a tornado.
But it takes more preparation time to mitigate economic losses from severe weather. And the forecasting methods needed to do so —by more exactly calculating a storm’s intensity and impact zones—have lagged.
Take Hurricane Sandy. New Jersey Transit suffered losses in the millions because of miscalculations of storm surge and insufficient time to move mobile assets. And reports from USA Today and PBS suggest the global computer model of the European Consortium for Medium Range Forecasting (ECMWF) with more precise forecasting technology was used by AccuWeather to forecast the storm’s exact path, including its “left turn” inland, something the U.S. model did not predict.
We already have the tech know-how to improve the advanced notice we provide for major storms like this year’s blizzard. But there are serious issues holding back United States’ weather forecasting including:
- Gaps in coverage in the U.S. weather satellite program will likely occur later in this decade.
- Inadequate planning to replace aging systems such as the U.S. wind profiler network.
- Budgetary constraints on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Gulfstream jet. It is not able to fly as many data-gathering missions as are required to collect data over oceans and other data-sparse areas in advance of major storms.
- Finally, but of great importance, is dramatically upgrading the computer power available to the National Weather Service for running advanced computer models. As you’ll see in the graph below, the United States severely lags behind the rest of the world in terms of computing resources available for weather forecasting. In fact, my company pays considerable sums to have full access to the European consortium’s superior computer model.
Source: Dr. Cliff Mass, University of Washington
Where Tech Can Help
In addition to solving these problems, we must integrate new technology into the mix.
The precision of weather forecasts is limited by the scales we use to measure the atmosphere and create forecasting models. For example, a model with 4-kilometer grid spacing can model individual thunderstorms, whereas a model with 20-km spacing can only hint at them. It sounds simple, but a tighter grid dramatically increases the computational power needed to run the model.
In order to provide the lead time required to make decisions that could save lives and millions of dollars, land conditions (such as evapotranspiration from crops and soil moisture) and high-density measurements of moisture in the atmosphere are all required. The current quality of these types of measurements would best be described as adequate. Fortunately, there is hope in the next generation of earth-observing satellites, which will provide better measurements.
Going the Extra Mile
Yet perhaps one of the biggest problems in meteorology is what is described as the “last mile” challenge: getting the storm warning or detailed forecast to people in a timely fashion. There are apps out there that help, including one my company developed called SkyGuard Mobile. GPS-driven smartphones can definitely help in getting time-sensitive warnings to those who need them, but we also need the will, funding, and cooperation to boost weather tech here in the stormy States to reduce the human and economic wallop big storms can bring.
For more on this issue, check our Eric Klinenberg’s salon The Digital Divide in Emergency Management.
This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated. The views expressed are the author’s own.