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NOAA To Upgrade Its Computer-Driven Weather Forecasts

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NOAA To Upgrade Its Computer-Driven Weather Forecasts

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NOAA To Upgrade Its Computer-Driven Weather Forecasts

NOAA To Upgrade Its Computer-Driven Weather Forecasts

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has announced it will boost its computer forecasting ability ten-fold. Steve Inskeep talks to Jason Samenow, weather editor of The Washington Post.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Waking up to a fresh coating of snowfall. More impressive accumulation...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: And on the West Coast, heavy rains and mudslides in Washington.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Any holiday break is over for people who clear snow from roads in the city and the suburbs.


On this week of weather news around the country, let's talk about the one thing we most want to know about the weather, what to expect next. The federal government says it is starting, at last, to spend money to upgrade its computer-driven forecasts. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, fears it's fallen behind on its technology. We're going to talk this through with Jason Samenow, who is the weather editor at The Washington Post. Welcome to the program.

JASON SAMENOW: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: How did NOAA discover it had a problem?

SAMENOW: So over the years, the National Weather Service has fallen behind its European counterparts in the accuracy of its forecasts. So the National Weather Service has a computer model known as the GFS. It's actually not as skillful as two computer models in Europe known as the U.K. Met Office model and a model run from the European center for medium-range forecasts. So those are the two world-class models. So there's some real push to close that gap.

INSKEEP: You know, this subject may be familiar to people who closely listen to weather forecasts. I'm thinking of the time of hurricane Sandy a couple of years ago. Let's listen to NBC's Al Roker at that time talking about Sandy. And he actually referred to the European model.


AL ROKER: By Monday morning, the European model is much closer to the shore and comes in on land somewhere just south of the Delmarva Peninsula, while the American model comes in closer up to New York. And that's going to make a big difference.

INSKEEP: And that's a life-saving difference, of course. Where exactly is a storm going hit land, especially a deadly storm like that? Whose model was closer to the truth as it turned out?

SAMENOW: The European model was the first to accurately predict that Sandy, rather than hooking out to see, would actually strike the U.S. So the European model provided the most lead time for Sandy. Now, once we got within about three to five days, the American model joined the European model in providing a more or less accurate forecast.

INSKEEP: And if I'm not mistaken, the money the government wants to spend grew out of - grew out of Sandy, right? This was, like, essentially trying to deal with a lesson learned?

SAMENOW: Right. Lawmakers decided after Sandy that the National Weather Service needed more computing resources to improve its hurricane forecasts as well as its forecasts overall.

INSKEEP: So can you give us a layman's sense of what makes the difference between a pretty good computer forecasting model, which the National Weather Service seems to have now, and a much better one, which the Europeans seem to have?

SAMENOW: So I mean, basically, the European model has a lot more computing power, which means it can pick up on smaller-scale weather features. And it also means that it can better bring in data to the model, which helps improve how well the model can forecast features further out in time. Frankly, forecasters both in the private sector and within the National Weather Service tend to have more trust in the European model forecasts than they do the American forecasts.

INSKEEP: So why isn't the National Weather Service just using the European model if it already seems to be working for them?

SAMENOW: Oh, they absolutely do. And I think all forecasters and meteorologist share data and look at each other's models and learn from the strengths and weaknesses from the different models. So the National Weather Service is absolutely looking at what the European model is doing. But at the same time, in the spirit of advancing the science and having the best possible model, at the National Weather Service, they've determined that they need to make these upgrades in their computers so that they can keep pace and kind of lead the way in global weather forecasting.

INSKEEP: Jason Samenow of The Washington Post, thanks very much.

SAMENOW: You bet.

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