Weather forecasts can be lifesavers

By:  Daily Astorian – Daily Astorian Staff
Source: Daily Astorian

Living as we do in a place where the weather is notoriously entertaining, it is of special interest to note the National Weather Service is modernizing its forecasting computer at a glacial pace.

In the aftermath of the Superstorm Sandy disaster on the East Coast, Congress provided funds for an updated computer to bring the NWS into the 21st century. Currently, the weather service is shamefully out-performed by the European Center for Medium Range Weather Forecasting, which recently bought two U.S.-manufactured CRAY XC-30s. These have 15 times the computational speed of our NWS’s antiquated equipment.

Our outdated weather forecasting technology has many real-world consequences, leading to less accurate predictions that lag by days in terms of timeliness.

NWS is hobbled by acquisition rules that require it to buy IBM computers, because other providers use Chinese-made chips that are supposedly a security risk. As University of Washington Meteorology Prof. Cliff Mass wrote Tuesday, this aversion to Chinese chips is ridiculous. “China and the U.S. have a close partnership in weather prediction with profound interdependence,” Mass said. “They are not going to destroy our weather modeling capability.”

Beyond this non-issue, NWS is stalled in other respects, with a revised timeline for technology upgrades now stretching into 2018.

All this is reminiscent of the long battle to obtain vital Doppler weather radar for the outer coast, a struggle that was won thanks to the almost single-handed intervention of U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. It’s time for Congress to break this logjam by giving NWS the instructions and money it needs to buy the best possible forecasting system.