NOAA Announces Big Upgrades to Its Global Weather Forecast System

Graphic: Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has made a major upgrade to its Global Forecast System (GFS) that experts hope will equip the agency and weather services around the world to adapt to the challenges of climate change. The upgrade will greatly improve the forecasting of extreme weather events including hurricanes and high-altitude weather systems. With “more detail, higher resolution, and more layers,” this upgrade is more significant than previous ones, both in technology and potential impact.

Why This Matters: Hurricanes are becoming more frequent and more intense each year. But NOAA’s GFS hasn’t managed to keep up. The system was slow to predict that Hurricane Sandy would make landfall in 2012, and in 2019, underperformed the EU’s forecast model when it came to predicting the paths of storms. Every weather app and local news network, as well as partners across the world, rely on the information provided by the GFS to make decisions like when to evacuate and when to hunker down. Louis Uccellini, the director of the National Weather Service explained that this isn’t just for science or research. “This is going to have a fundamental impact on the forecasts that are provided day-to-day,” he said.  Good news — given the strong dose of severe weather we now experience, we need every bit of that upgrade to keep us safe and keep commerce moving.

Diversifying Weather

In 2020, record-breaking hurricanes along the east coast and subsequent flooding caused an estimated $65 billion in damages. Much of the damage was exacerbated by how little time communities had to prepare and recover in between hurricanes. But hurricanes aren’t the only strange storm systems the U.S. is facing.

  • An atmospheric river on the west coast knocked out a chunk of California’s Highway 1, battered communities with heavy rainfall, and dropped more than 100 inches of snow on the mountains around Lake Tahoe.
  • In the South, an Arctic storm system wiped out power and water for 14 million people in one of the largest natural disaster crises in the last decade.
  • Also along the west coast, record-breaking wildfires decimated 10.3 million acres of land.

Across the pond, a high-altitude, high-pressure weather system has trapped millions under a dome of intense heat, increasing temperatures by an average of 20 degrees Fahrenheit compared to last year.

The new GFS will be more equipped to monitor and track weather systems where insight has previously lagged. This technology won’t just help protect lives, it will help us monitor and combat climate change too.

What’s New?

The upgraded model will rely on supercomputers in Virginia and Florida and will include software updates to use more information from satellites and aircraft. It will also use data collected from the upper atmosphere for the first time. These technological additions, showed a “10 to 15% improvement in tropical cyclone track and intensity in the Atlantic Basin,” according to Vijay Tallapragada, the head of the Modeling and Data Assimilation Branch for NOAA’s Environmental Modeling Center. That 15% means that predictions can give up to 36 hours of extra time for communities to prepare for storms. In Colorado, the new system was able to predict a snowstorm a day earlier and was more accurate in where the snow would be most intense.

Experts are excited about this new potential to gain insight into how climate change is impacting our weather. Uccellini says that the new system will allow for leaps and bounds in our understanding of storm systems. “When we announced our upgrade to the GFS in 2019, we described it as replacing the engine of a car,” he said. “With today’s upgrade, we’re adding more horsepower and more upgrades to the entire car as we move forward.”

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