Sometimes weather forecasters get a bad rap. No one points out when their predictions come true, but everyone is quick to call out when they’re off by even the smallest degree.
Today, top experts in the industry, across both the public and private sectors, are continuing decades of work trying to improve forecast and larger weather pattern accuracy. And, thanks to technology, those researchers can start putting the jokes and light-hearted criticisms of their calls to rest. Each new technological advancement gives researchers an opportunity to refine their forecasting tools and build confidence in the veracity of their weather reports.
In March 2021, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) unveiled the latest update to the agency’s weather forecasting infrastructure: WaveWatchIII. The new data from this upgrade, coupled with other fortifications, will help NOAA and other weather forecasting entities predict the timing, locations, and severity of extreme storm events like snowfall and hurricanes more accurate.
This is a big win not only for the meteorological community, but also for many of the other fields that rely on weather forecasting in some capacity. More reliable forecasts allow many of the professionals in these adjacent industries to make more confident decisions and reach more desirable outcomes overall.
The Difficulty in Weather Forecasting
Weather forecasting is a tough gig; while researchers have access to a century of historical data, past trends, and current conditions to narrow their bets, they can’t predict the future and always risk losing their wager on an outcome no one foresaw.
The atmosphere, simply put, is absolutely massive. And all the little happenings in the various layers of the atmosphere eventually present themselves through the weather we experience. While the computing power we see in machines today is impressive and growing exponentially, models are still trying to find the best avenues and means of utilizing that power. Without models that can take in each contributing factor, meteorologists’ predictions will still sometimes misalign with the reality we experience.
Improving Forecast Models
NOAA, the National Centers for Environmental Protection, and the National Centers for Environmental Information all operate the Global Forecasting System (GFS), a forecast model that collects and implements atmospheric data and land/soil variables to weather forecasts. The model breaks the atmosphere down into a grid, with a horizontal resolution (i.e., distance between grid points) of 28 kilometers.
The GFS is actually a composite of other models, ones that specialize in the primary forces behind the weather. In total, it mixes the data from atmosphere, land/soil, ocean, and sea ice models.
In 2019, NOAA introduced one of the biggest updates to the GFS yet: the FV3, or Finite-Volume Cubed-Sphere Dynamic Core. Ultimately, like all advancements in weather forecasting, the FV3 is meant to help forecasters improve their model and make more accurate predictions. But the FV3 was an important update because it enabled additional analysis, helping researchers and forecasters get a better understanding of long-term weather patterns.
The FV3 engine maps fluid dynamics, with an emphasis on conserving energy, mass and momentum within each 28km horizontal square of the GFS. After helping power the most successful climate model at the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fourth climate assessment, Shian-Jiann Lin, the model’s inventor, continued to lead a team and the model’s development, finally creating the current iteration of the engine. As of 2019, the FV3 could simulate areas less than two square miles.
The minds behind the GFS made another critical advancement earlier this year. In March 2021, NOAA announced the introduction of WaveWatchIII to the GFS. The pairing of the two will increase the ability of the GFS to forecast the ocean wave patterns the atmosphere creates in the ocean. This will help extend the viability of wave forecasts from its current 10 days to 16.
The GFS vertical resolution also almost doubles from 64 to 127 layers. Overall, these recent additions and tweaks to the GFS will increase the understanding and view the meteorological community has of atmospheric physics. Just a few results of this work are enhanced snowfall, precipitation, and hurricane genesis forecasting. And, with hurricane season here, the new-and-improved GFS can start delivering even more actionable data.
What Better Forecasts Mean
While the GFS and its updates are very good for the meteorological community, it’s a boon for other industries too.
Weather forecasts tell most of the public when to reschedule plans or what to wear for the day. But many professionals across both the private and public sectors rely on weather forecasts to inform their decisions and guide their operations. For emergency planners, more robust forecasts (i.e., more accurate extreme weather event predictions) mean better incident response and damage mitigation.
Weather events are one of the top causes of emergencies. Emergency managers, continuity planners, and other response professionals dedicate a significant portion of their work to planning for, responding to, and recovering from for weather-induced emergencies.
The recent enhancements to the GFS and its components translate to more time for emergency planners. With more notice comes more opportunity; officials and responders can co-opt the extra hours to establish reliable means of communications with stakeholders, build better infrastructure for public communications and data intake, and get ahead on evacuations and relocations. More importantly, the extra time makes it way back into planning, producing a more effective response and indirectly keeping people safe.
A Look at the Forecast
For most people, the updates to the GFS model run by NOAA and other agencies are interesting, but don’t appear to have a hard, immediate impact on their daily lives. But for meteorologists, weather forecasters, and other professionals, the upgrades are a big deal and signal the evolution of weather forecasting.
The new GFS model comes at the right time, just as we start the hurricane season of 2021. The effort the engineers and researchers put into the bolstered model will really come to fruition in the coming months and deliver valuable information professionals across certain industries can use to keep people safe and mitigate damage. As researchers continue putting time and funds into the project, the GFS will continue to grow and become an even more critical tool in disaster planning and mitigation.