February 21st, 2015
It’s a common conversation topic, the weather and how the forecast for today was or wasn’t accurate. And when it comes to storms, when a big one is predicted but then fails to live up to the hype, people will once again point to meteorologists and how easily they get the forecast wrong. Despite this long running narrative, this week’s devastating hurricane along the east coast of the United States represents a major achievement in the world of weather – the forecast got it exactly right!
The system that deserves all the credit is known as the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, also known as ECMWF or the European model, which predicted the exact path of the storm one week before it reached southern New Jersey. In contrast , the American model, known as the Global Forecast System (GFS), which uses less advanced data assimilation, predicted the storm would blow out to sea. In addition to the type of forecast system, the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) also made use of weather balloons and the GOES-13 weather satellite to gather data such as barometric pressure, temperature, wind speeds as the storm advanced.
As Matt Daniel points out in his Weather Globe column, the European investment in the ECMWF paid off and helped save lives this time. But his concern is the decline in the number of satellites that help gather data about weather (in addition to other functions). If things continue in their current trajectory, by 2020 there will be only 6 US satellites in orbit compared to 23 today. Daniel warns that although our existing systems worked well in warning about Sandy, storms like this remind us of the importance of investing in new satellites, “If we do not improve these problems, then all of the progress we have made in the study of atmospheric sciences will be for nothing.”
Photo: U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Northeast Region / flickr