News Column

Tempest Stirs Over US-based Forecasts

Oct. 31, 2012

By Dan Vergano

A European forecast that closely predicted Hurricane Sandy's onslaught days ahead of U.S. and other models is raising complaints that America needs to do better.

The European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts on Oct. 23 warned that Hurricane Sandy would hit the East Coast on Monday, days ahead of other major hurricane models, which mostly saw the storm heading out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Although weather models converged remarkably well by the weekend to accurately predict Hurricane Sandy's arrival, meteorologists complained of weaknesses in U.S. forecasting capability.

"It's embarrassing. We should have the best forecasts on the planet. And it has an economic cost," says meteorologist Cliff Mass of the University of Washington in Seattle.

The European center's prediction was made on more powerful computers, and ran on higher-resolution models of the weather that simulated the future over longer time periods, beyond eight days, than the one employed by the federal National Weather Service. The European model is widely seen as the best at predicting hurricanes, Mass and others say, as demonstrated with Hurricane Isaac in late August.

"The U.S. does not lead the world; we are not No. 1 in weather forecasting, I'm very sorry to say that," says AccuWeather's Mike Smith, author of Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather.

"In general, there are reasons to believe the European model does perform better," says meteorologist Chris Davis of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. Forecasters typically rely on collections, or ensembles, of model forecasts to make storm warnings, weighing the strengths and weaknesses of each one, Davis added. That makes decisions tricky and reliant on human expertise.

"All the models have their strength and weaknesses," said Louis Uccellini, head of the National Weather Service's National Centers for Environmental Prediction. He acknowledged the European model made its East Coast prediction ahead of the U.S. and United Kingdom forecasts. He noted the European model was off in some of its predictions, as well, regarding where it would make landfall and low-pressure measures.

Uccellini pointed to improvements coming to the National Weather Service, which is running more powerful computer models around August 2013.

Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2012

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