Congressional briefing addresses science's impact on weather prediction, economy

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State researcher Fuqing Zhang was one of three experts on a panel, representing universities, federally funded labs and the private sector, who briefed Congress on how recent advances in technology have improved severe weather forecasting, allowing targeted forecasts for both the public and businesses that support the economy and can save lives. The briefing, sponsored by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), took place today (Nov.14).

Antonio Busalacchi, president of UCAR, emphasized the benefits of university researchers working with government agencies and the private sector to improve the forecasts needed to better protect vulnerable communities and strengthen the economy.

"These essential collaborations between government agencies, universities and private companies are driving landmark advances in weather forecasting," he said. "The investments that taxpayers are making in basic research are paying off many times over by keeping our nation safer and more prosperous."

Zhang, professor of meteorology and director of Penn State's Center on Advanced Data Assimilation and Predictability Techniques, highlighted the ways that scientists are advancing their understanding of hurricanes and other storms with increasingly detailed observations and computer modeling. Zhang is part of the Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with complementary funding support from NASA, the Office of Naval Research and the National Science Foundation. That project aims to cut forecasting errors related to hurricane track and intensity in half for the five days leading up to a hurricane making landfall. The program also aims to extend the lead time from five days to seven days.

To do this, the researchers are using data collected via satellite, hurricane hunters, Doppler radar and other sources to create a high-resolution computer model of a hurricane's predicted path and strength.

"The future of weather forecasting is very promising," Zhang said. "With the appropriate investments in observations, modeling, data assimilation methodology, and supercomputing, we will see some remarkable achievements."

Other panelists at the briefing included Mary Glackin, director of science and forecast operations for the Weather Company, an IBM business, and Rebecca Morss, senior scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).

"Thanks to a quiet revolution in modern weather prediction, we can all use forecasts to make decisions in ways that wouldn't have been possible just 10 years ago," said Morss. "Now we are looking to the next revolution, which includes giving people longer lead times and communicating risk as effectively as possible"

Glackin said the goal of the weather industry is to help consumers and businesses make better decisions, both by providing its own forecasts and by forwarding alerts from the National Weather Service. The Weather Company currently is adapting a powerful research weather model based at NCAR, the Model for Prediction Across Scales, for use in worldwide, real-time forecasts.

"We have a weather and climate enterprise that we can be extremely proud of as a nation, but it's not where it should be," she said. "Weather affects every consumer and business, and the public-private partnership can play a pivotal role in providing better weather information that is critically needed."

The briefing was the latest in a series of UCAR congressional briefings that draw on expertise from the university consortium and public-private partnerships to provide insights into critical topics in the Earth system sciences. Past briefings have focused on wildfires, predicting space weather, aviation weather safety, the state of the Arctic, hurricane prediction, potential impacts of El Niño, and new advances in water forecasting.

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Last Updated November 14, 2017