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Technology boosts weather forecasters’ accuracy

May 18, 2010 at 05:36 AM

Chicago Tribune

ROMEOVILLE, Ill. (AP) - In a small brick building on the edge of a cornfield in Romeoville, three scientists sit before a bank of glowing computer monitors and attempt to answer a common query: What will the weather be like this week?

It’s a deceptively simple question—one that would have been absurd about 40 years ago when meteorologists whipped thermometers in circles to measure humidity and traced storms on paper using grease pencils.

But, unlike their predecessors, these scientists have modern-day meteorology at their fingertips. They have satellite images of clouds churning across the globe, radar beams reflecting nearby wind, rain or hail, and supercomputers able to crunch all this and more into stunningly accurate weather predictions at 70 trillion mathematical calculations per second.

Meteorologist Paul Merzlock, who has been predicting the weather for northern Illinois since the 1980s, grasped for an adequate analogy.

“It’s like going from pencil sharpening to Star Wars,” he said. “It’s like leaping from the Stone Age to the Space Age.”

And at no time of the year is the importance of this leap more evident than in the so-called “convective season,” otherwise known as spring.

From about April to June, as cold air barrels down the Great Plains and collides with warmer, humid air rising out of the Gulf of Mexico, explosive thunderstorms with tornado-producing potential often rip through the Chicago area.

How much time people have to duck under umbrellas or into basement shelters comes down to meteorologists like Merzlock who employ a worldwide mesh of weather-sensing machinery.

“These thunderstorms look pretty impressive,” said Merzlock, 54, on a recent Friday in Romeoville as he pointed to a crimson streak blowing toward Rockford on his computer screen.

“The really dark reds on this radar image indicate really high energy returns, which is probably hail,” said Merzlo ck, whose well-tanned, creased face hints at a life spent in the weather he tracks. “We’ll be issuing a tornado watch here in a couple of minutes.”

The developing storm did not surprise the staff of the Romeoville office, which monitors a 23-county area around Chicago. They had been predicting bad weather all week, starting the previous Monday with satellite images of rain clouds arcing over the Pacific Northwest.

From there, hundreds of electronic sensors around the country transmitted atmospheric measurements, like temperature and pressure, to supercomputers in Washington, D.C. Applying the laws of physics, those high-powered computers then sent data and images to the Romeoville meteorologists, detailing how the storm front would develop in the coming days.

Using about a dozen models generated from computers in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Europe, the scientists finally piece together their seven-day weather forecast.

Dr. Louis Uccellini, director of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction in Washington, D.C., attempted to put the current computing power into perspective: If everyone in the United States were doing a calculation per second, it would take them about two and a half days to do the amount of work these computers can do in one second, he said.

“It is one of the top intellectual achievements of the 20th century,” Uccellini said. “Just 45 years ago, there was no credibility for specific weather forecasts of extreme events beyond 24 hours.”

In the 1960s, general weather forecasting stretched only about two days into the future. At the time, a detailed seven-day weather forecast would have been considered “foolhardy,” according to Merzlock.

While weather forecasting has become increasingly accurate, geographically small events - like a tornado - can still be hard to foretell.

It’s a fact that can keep the meteorologists in Romeoville up at night.

One memory, in particular, retains a horrible freshness: Plainfield, August 28, 1990.

On that date, an unexpected tornado emerged from a severe thunderstorm, killing 29 people, injuring 350 and causing $165 million in property damage in just 15 minutes.

At the time, forecasters lacked Doppler radar, which would likely have revealed the rotating columns of air that often lead to a tornado. Instead, warnings of that impending storm were issued too late. Mark Ratzer, who also forecasts weather for Chicago, called the destruction following a catastrophic weather event “sobering.”

“To actually have a fatal event, you remember that,” said Ratzer, who witnessed the aftermath of the 2004 Utica tornado. “You think about what you could have done.”

In the future, meteorologists hope they will be able to predict tornadoes much like a rain forecast by increasing radar and computing power. Next January, the Romeoville meteorologists plan to install a new radar system t hat will be able to visualize the size and shape of particles in a storm, giving scientists an even better grasp of the storm’s severity.

Until that time, however, meteorologists issue the standard tornado watch, review the incoming data, and wait for the winds to turn.

Back in Romeoville, Merzlock noted that the wind around O’Hare International Airport had begun to shift counterclockwise.

He looked outside at the darkening clouds.

“This could be a big one,” Merzlock said. “You just hope people got our watch and have gone inside.”

Your CommentsComments :: Terms :: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

I had Mr. Merzlock for 2 meteorology classes over the passed year at Lewis University. If you ever happen to meet him and have any bit of interest in weather pick his brain. The guy remembers storms and dates unbelievably well and you can learn a lot of good information from him. He is also an outdoorsman, he and I shared many a fishing story so I am sure he would be happy to talk about that as well.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 05/18 at 08:35 AM

If I ever loose the job I have now I believe I want to be a weather forcaster—- be wrong every day still get paid-never get fired!!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 05/19 at 07:29 AM

How hard is it?  All they have to say is “chance of rain today”.  That is all it seems to want to do.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 05/20 at 12:37 PM

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