National Weather Service upgrades forecasting tools
New computer system in place across country
July 28, 1999
STERLING, Virginia (CNN) -- Meteorologists say the nation is safer now that the National Weather Service has installed a new high-tech computer system at 152 locations around the country.
The $4.5 billion system promises to deliver faster, more accurate forecasts of dangerous weather conditions by combining Doppler radar, satellite imagery, ground station weather data and computer-generated numerical forecasts on one computer screen instead of multiple terminals.
"The ability to map, let's say, where the highest concentration of lightning strikes are with the developing updraft of a thunderstorm is incredibly important," said Steven Zubrick, a meteorologist at the NWS office near Washington-Dulles International Airport.
The Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System (AWIPS) replaces the 1970s technology that has been in use until now, and is the crown jewel in the agency's long-running modernization project.
The overhaul also includes 311 automatic weather observing systems, 120 new Doppler radars and three modern weather satellites, as well as retraining of the forecasting staff.
The goal, director John Kelly said, is "to turn your Weather Service into America's no-surprise weather service" and to give people more time to get out of the way of dangerous weather.
But, he warns, many lives are lost because people ignore official warnings.
"The relationship between lives saved and lead times is less a question of lead time and more a question of whether citizens heed the warnings," Kelly said.
"We've got documented examples of where we've had an hour-plus lead time on a flash flood warning ... and citizens have driven around the barriers and into the flooding stream," Kelly recounted at a news conference.
Forecaster Zubrick thinks the improved forecasting ability of the new AWIPS system will help that problem.
"You have to have trust in people who do forecasts or it doesn't work," he said. "If you say there's going to be a severe storm -- and it doesn't happen -- they lose interest and they think you've cried wolf.
"If we can improve on that, people may think twice before driving around the barriers and into the streams," he said.
Producer Ted Barrett contributed to this report.
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