Technology: Better Technology Makes Better Weathermen

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 05-17-2006

What makes a tornado change its course? How might changing climate patterns in the Far East affect snowfall rates across the U.S. next winter? And how can we avoid further catastrophes like hurricanes Katrina and Rita? Answering such questions is the job of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Now, thanks to broad investment in new technology, it may be closer to finding those answers.

NOAA recently signed an eight-year, $368 million contract with Raytheon Corp. to install high-performance computers in three of its locations: the National Centers for Environmental Prediction in Camp Springs, Md.; the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, N.J.; and at the Global Systems Division of the Earth Systems Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo. The goal: To better model the earth's climate and weather patterns, leading to more accurate forecasts and a deeper understanding of global climate changes. NOAA will begin rolling out the system in October.

Plenty of computers across the globe are already working to model climate patterns, most notably those managed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an organization founded by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations in 1988. Yet they all have their limitations, says Bill Turnbull, NOAA's deputy CIO. "With this new system, we can significantly improve our models," he says. For example, the new computers can analyze more complex atmospheric data, such as how a broad range of chemicals like ozone, carbon dioxide and methane interact in the troposphere. "By capturing that data, we will make fewer assumptions and reduce the uncertainty involved in estimating climate change," Turnbull says.

Better modeling will also help scientists determine the development of hurricanes well in advance, and help then predict how storms will move. "Obviously one of the key things we are interested in is improving the track forecast," says Turnbull, "so only those people who are truly at risk are evacuated." That will help prevent another Houston-like event, when Hurricane Rita caused the needless evacuation of millions of residents. "We do have a fairly broad idea of where a hurricane might end up today, but we would like to narrow that cone of uncertainty," Turnbull says. So how long will it be before we can depend on weathermen to make truly accurate forecasts? Turnbull won't speculate. "It's an ongoing process. Each year we make improvements."