Optimism And Unity Surrounding Launch Of New Era Of U.S Weather Forecasting

2019-11-25T15:45:09+00:00 November 25, 2019|
Hurricane Floyd on September 14, 1999. Photo credit: NOAA

Hurricane Floyd on September 14, 1999. Photo credit: NOAA

From: Ocean News Weekly/ By: Ocean Leadership Staff 

What It Was

The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Environment held a hearing titled “A Task of EPIC Proportions: Reclaiming U.S. Leadership in Weather Modeling and Prediction.”

Why It Matters

As incidence of severe weather events increases and global climate systems and our ocean change, American lives and economic wellbeing are more dependent than ever on accurate weather prediction. The United States has rich history of weather forecasting; however, it has become clear the U.S. is no longer a leader in numerical weather prediction (NWP), which uses mathematical models of the atmosphere and ocean and is foundational for all weather forecasts. This became clear to the U.S public when the European weather model predicted Hurricane Sandy’s sharp left turn to the U.S. coastline and the American model did not, resulting in a storm that caused $75 billion in damages. In response, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is working to establish the Earth Prediction Innovation Center (EPIC) to better utilize existing resources and accelerate scientific and technological advancements in NWP

Key Points

Committee members sought to understand reasons U.S. weather modeling lags behind other countries and hear how EPIC would successfully resolve these issues. In response to this realization during Hurricane Sandy, Congress passed the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017 to improve the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) weather mission. The agency has worked to boost computing power, improve data collection and enhance simulation ability. Building on this work and instructed by the National Integrated Drought Information System Reauthorization Act of 2018, NOAA has requested funding for 2020 to launch EPIC, which will create a global modeling system that enables cooperative work and improvements of NWP.

Witnesses envision EPIC as a state-of-the-art institution made for and run by the weather community with a clear strategic vision. They were clear that U.S forecasting failures were not due to lack of capability, but rather due to duplication and division of efforts across sectors and EPIC would be a collaborative hub linking scientists, software engineers, and other stakeholders with necessary resources and each other to best leverage the considerable skills and expertise of the U.S. weather enterprise. Dr. Clifford Mass (Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Washington) described how organizations, such as NOAA, Navy, Air Force, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), have platforms in different code systems, making each incompatible with the others. He explained that academia mainly operates in the NCAR structure, meaning NOAA has been shut out of some of academia’s best research and innovation in modeling. A common code base and infrastructure — facilitated through EPIC — would eliminate redundancies, allow testing of new models and observing systems, and integrate data for maximum efficacy and efficiency in forecasting. To accomplish these ambitious goals, witnesses stressed need for more of several different kinds of resources: cloud-based computing technology, physical computer allocations, and general operational funding.

Witnesses also emphasized that autonomy and independence from a single government entity is vital for a successful EPIC. Dr. Neil Jacobs (Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction, performing the duties of Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, NOAA) expressed the opinion that NOAA should play an important guiding role in development and implementation of the program, but leadership of EPIC should be independent, to which other witnesses agreed. Guided by stakeholders, it would engage public, private, and academic sectors of the weather enterprise.

Several members were concerned with how, and if, EPIC would help their constituents in case of extreme weather, or when experiencing impacts of changes in the climate and ocean, such as increased red tides and harmful algal blooms, shifting fisheries, and sea level rise. Dr. Jacobs explained how EPIC will focus on the global modeling system because it is the basis for other climate, biological, and ecological models, meaning that increased accuracy of the global modeling system will then help other forecasts. This includes those critical during an extreme weather event, such as predicted precipitation and runoff, and will result in better decision-making abilities for coastal communities and policy makers.

Next Steps

From June to July 2019 NOAA gathered ideas, recommendations, and best practices to meet the goals of the program via a Request for Information (RFI) and has since conducted extensive research via the RFI results, EPIC Community Workshop, and the Industry Day/Vendor Meetings in working towards establishing the institution. NOAA will soon issue a Request for Proposals concerning the governance structure and other integral parts of the program.

Quotable

“Our nation was the first in numerical weather prediction but threw away leadership by dividing our efforts. It is time, through EPIC, to combine and rationalize how we develop our forecast models, with extraordinary benefits to the American people.” — Dr. Clifford Mass (Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Washington)

“Many of the country’s primary operational NWP capabilities have underperformed relative to international counterparts for decades, partly as a result of a distributed, uncoordinated approach to its development and operation without an overall guiding national strategy or vision. EPIC represents the best opportunity in a generation to correct this and deliver to the nation superior weather and climate services that optimize the return on the investments the country is making in the science.” — Dr. Peter P. Neilley (IBM Distinguished Engineer and Director of Weather Forecasting Sciences and Technologies, The Weather Company, An IBM Business)

“I dream of EPIC as an agile center, where scientists focus on their science, red tape is reduced to a minimum, a streamlined executive structure is directly accountable, and community collaboration is entirely result-oriented. Let the government – in connection with academia, industry – articulate operational forecasting needs and establish milestones, and EPIC can use the community’s ingenuity and vast resources to reach and even surpass forecast improvement goals.” — Dr. Thomas Auligné (Director of the Joint Center for Satellite Data Assimilation, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research)

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