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National Weather Service upgrades forecasting tools


New computer system in place across country

July 28, 1999
Web posted at: 9:33 p.m. EDT (0133 GMT)

In this story:

'No-surprise weather service'

Better forecasts build life-saving trust


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.

 National Weather Service success stories:
  • Grand Canyon, Arizona, July 14-15: Modern Doppler radar detected rain of up to three inches falling over the area, which threatened to flood Bright Angel Creek. The advance warnings allowed park officials to close hiking trails and keep visitors away from mudslides.

  • Beebe, Arkansas, January 21: A girls basketball game was called at half-time after the school superintendent heard a tornado warning on NWS radio. Thirty minutes later, the then-empty gym was leveled by the twister.

  • Zion National Park, Utah, July 27, 1998: Forecasters used new technology to pinpoint which drainage areas would flood in heavy rains, and park rangers persuaded most hikers to vacate the area. Two hikers who ignored the warnings were killed.

  • Camp Springs, Maryland, June 17, 1997: For the first time, forecasters correctly predicted the arrival of the El Nino weather phenomenon, six months in advance.

  • Cincinnati, March 25, 1997: Advance flood warnings saved opening day for the Cincinnati Reds by giving managers of Cinergy Field time to close flood gates and activate pumps to prevent flooding of the new $2 million Astroturf field.

  • Honolulu, July 16, 1994: Using new technology to track and forecast the path of Hurricane Emilia, forecasters were able to avoid issuing an unnecessary warning, saving millions of dollars in evacuation costs.

    Source: The Associated Press

  • 'No-surprise weather service'

    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.

    Better forecasts build life-saving trust

    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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    National Weather Service
      • AWIPS
      • AWIPS Program Office
    AWIPS Home Page
    Washington Dulles International Airport
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