Sen. Mikulski hails investments in U.S. weather technology

By Anthony Valentino -- Medill News Service  |  Updated July 3, 2013 at 1:13 PM
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WASHINGTON, July 3 -- Citing the government’s need to “save lives and property,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., on Tuesday touted a more than $50 million investment in improving the nation’s weather forecasting technology, which significantly lags behind that of European countries. “The computational capacity [will create] a new American model that will be the fastest, the most accurate, and have the greatest resolution of any facility in the world,” Mikulski said. The primary supercomputer system paid for by the new funding will be housed in Reston, Va., with a backup facility in Orlando, Fla. Making her first public appearance as commerce secretary, Penny Pritzker joined Mikulski at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Center for Weather and Climate Prediction in Riverdale, Md., where weather officials will be using the new data. Nearly $24 million of the total was funded under the “Sandy Supplemental” bill. “The frequency of weather extremes is increasing, the severity of events coming our way is increasing,” said NOAA Acting Administrator Dr. Kathryn Sullivan. “The mission has never been as important as it is today.” The U.S. lags behind Europe in the precision of its forecasts because its computers do not have enough raw power to run more sophisticated models, NOAA officials said. The nation’s weather supercomputer systems currently operate at roughly 90 teraflops, a measurement of the number of trillion of calculations a computer can tabulate per second. That means the U.S. system is functioning at about half the capacity of its European counterpart. A striking example of the discrepancy between the two systems involved superstorm Sandy last fall. The European model accurately predicted that Sandy would track just off the eastern seaboard, then take a left-hand turn and make landfall near Atlantic City, N.J. up to eight days before the storm struck the U.S. The American model made the same prediction but not until four days later. In a blog post, University of Washington professor of atmospheric sciences Cliff Mass called the U.S. forecasting system “a national embarrassment” that “has resulted in large unnecessary costs for the U.S economy and the needless endangerment of our citizens.” By the middle of July the U.S. system will surge to more than 210 teraflops and by fiscal 2015 that number will be ten times bigger, according to NOAA. Europe is also expected to modernize their capacity during that timespan -- leading to a seesaw battle for forecasting supremacy.

“We love the Europeans. They are great NATO allies. But I’ll be darned if they are going to have a better weather model than the United States of America,” Mikulski said.

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