Weather Watch

U.S. contract to buy supercomputer from China puts us 3rd place for weather forecasting

Special to The TribuneApril 19, 2014 

A National WeatherService image shows an intense storm that rotated off the California coast on Feb. 28. The European forecast successfully predicted this storm several days before it developed.

COURTESY PHOTO

I love the United States. No other country on earth can match the opportunity for its citizens to reach their full human potential, regardless of their ethnic origins, gender, economic status, sexual orientation or spiritual beliefs.

Over the centuries, hundreds of thousands of Americans have sacrificed their lives in the pursuit of this goal. Simply put, that’s why I am a cheerleader for American teams.

Awkwardly, in the weather arena, the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) model has outperformed the NOAA’s Global Forecasting System (GFS) weather model over the last few years.

NOAA’s Environmental Modeling Center monitors various atmospheric model performances throughout the world. Their website’s verification graphs reveal that our GFS model is in third place behind the European and United Kingdom Met Office models and just ahead of the Canadian model for accuracy.

What are these models? They’re collections of mathematical formulas, run on powerful computers that produce forecasts for a specific location over time. The models collect as much weather information as possible around the world.

This vast amount of data is then fed to computers that perform billions of calculations to mimic the motion of weather patterns in the Earth’s chaotic atmosphere. This type of forecasting is possible because movements of the atmosphere follow natural laws that can be expressed in mathematical equations.

In other words, the greater amount of computer power, the more likely the model’s output will be more accurate.

These weather models are almost indispensable in giving guidance to meteorologists. It’s one of the main items in a forecaster’s tool box used to help predict the weather.

For example, the GFS model is currently predicting an Atmospheric River condition developing over Northern California next weekend. This condition is expected to produce more than 10 inches of precipitation, while leaving San Luis Obispo County without any precious rain.

However, the European model is indicating nearly a half an inch for areas of the county next Sunday. At times like this, I often refer to the Canadian model for further guidance. As of yesterday, the Canadian model is in alignment with the European model. Hence, I’m predicting showers next Sunday.

So why have some meteorologists lost confidence in the GFS model? After Superstorm Sandy, Congress allocated funds to upgrade NOAA’s computers, which would dramatically increase the GFS’s performance.

It turns out that NOAA is contracted to buy supercomputers only from IBM. At this time, IBM is planning to sell the division that builds these machines to Lenovo, a Chinese company. Lenovo's deal to purchase this division has produced strong regulatory scrutiny from the U.S. government. Consequently, this has delayed the purchase of much needed computers by NOAA.

The National Weather Service has some extraordinarily dedicated and capable scientists, but they need the computer resources to compete with the rest of the world. Ironically, the European Center has just purchased a supercomputer from CRAY, a U.S. company.

In fact, some of the most complex weather models in the world are run just north of us in Monterey at the Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center by the U.S. Navy. To keep sailors out of harm’s way, they produce the world's finest maritime weather forecasts. They also use CRAY supercomputers.

Without these computer upgrades, we could always say there is a 100 percent probability of a 50 percent chance that it may or may not rain.

In honor of National Volunteer Month this month, PG&E has announced an unprecedented employee volunteerism goal for the company of 50,000 employee volunteer hours this year. This goal is supported by the company’s Month of Service program, which will feature more than 100 employee volunteer projects throughout Northern and Central California.

John Lindsey’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a media relations representative for PG&E and a longtime local meteorologist. He is president of the Point San Luis Lighthouse Keepers. If you have a question, send him an email at pgeweather@pge.com.

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