August 02, 2019

EPIC: The Last Chance for National Weather Service Weather Modeling to Regain Leadership?

I have written at least a dozen blogs, a peer-reviewed paper, and given tens of conference talks on the unfortunate state of numerical weather prediction in the National Weather Service (which is part of NOAA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration).

The bottom line:  U.S. global weather prediction is in third place in the world. The plot below shows a comparison of the skill of the 5-day model forecast for the U.S. (red line) and the European Center (black line) at a mid-tropospheric level (500 hPa).   We are not only behind, but we are not catching up.
And more importantly than that, our weather prediction is substantially behind the state-of-the science.   That means not providing warnings of severe weather as far ahead as we could.  It means an economy that is not benefiting from the best weather guidance (such as agriculture and aircraft routing). There are real national costs to this.

 I have explained the origin of the problems in previous blogs.  They include:

1.  Too many Federal agencies  or government-supported labs trying to do the same thing (NOAA/NWS, Air Force, NASA, Navy, NCAR)
2.  The academic community working on different models than used by NOAA/NWS.
3.  Poor organization within NOAA, with multiple groups having responsibility for weather prediction.
4.  Lack of strategic planning.
5.  Lack of sufficient computer resources.
6.  No priority for excellence.

It has been kind of depressing.  The nation with a huge weather research capability and ability to zoom ahead of the pack, stuck in third rate status.

But there is a rare chance right now, the best in decades.  The stars are aligned.   And there is a critical meeting next week that might well decide which path the nation takes.  And it is all about EPIC.

Why are the stars aligned?

1.   The leadership of NOAA want to fix the problem.
2.  The U.S. public and the U.S. Congress know there is a problem, with Congress even passing legislature (with funding) calling for major change.
3.  The head of NOAA is a weather modeler (Neil Jacobs), as is the President's Science Advisor (Kelvin Drogemaier)
4.  The private sector is demanding improvement.

Perhaps best of all, recent weather legislation calls for the development of national EPIC center, that would centralize U.S. efforts to build the best global forecast models in the world.  (EPIC stands for Environmental Prediction Innovation Center).

Next week there is going to be a meeting on the nature of the EPIC that will take place in Boulder, Colorado.  An absolutely crucial gathering--I will be giving a talk there and are part of the organizing committee.

Will self-interest, disciplinary fiefdoms, and legacy administrative structures give way to rational, more effective approach for developing U.S. weather modeling systems?   We may know the answer in one week.

And this may be the last chance for NOAA.  Private sector companies are in the wing that will take on global weather prediction if NOAA fails to advance to first tier.    Not Space-X but Weather-X.  And the U.S. Air Force already abandoned the U.S. modeling system for a non-American model (UKMET Office Unified Model).  When the U.S. military gives up the American model, you know you have a problem.  I will let all of you know what happens.


  1. Cliff, I am very glad to know innovation may be in the air (no pun intended) for the US. Good luck with your talk which I am sure will be informative for decision makers. Let us know as soon as you know any outcomes please!

  2. Thank you for this information Cliff. What can we, as US citizens, do to promote, support, etc EPIC at this point? Would letters to elected representatives, etc. help; or, due to the timing of this upcoming conference/symposium is it too late for those efforts?

  3. It seems a little smoky over Western Whatcom County. Anyone know what the source of the smoke is?

    1. There are a lot of forest fires burning in Russia and Siberia. Hopefully they will get some much needed rain in the next few days.

    2. There was a brush fire in the Mud Bay area- below Chuckanut Mtn just South of Fairhaven by teenagers that reignited.

  4. Completely off topic.. Cliff it is very hazy today. So much so I thought maybe the curse of the fire smoke was back, but I don't see any significant fires out there. What's causing the poor visibility today?

  5. Noticeable smoke in both Whatcom and Skagit Counties today. It looked like it was medium to high level. I did not smell anything although I thought I did smell smoke 2 days ago in Bellingham at night.

    When I was in the Mt. Vernon area today, the smoke appeared to be quite dense to the south. Sky had a very yellow look. Cascades to the east had low visibility in both Whatcom and Skagit Counties.

  6. The local Avalanche center here in Wa, NWAC, has also been mired in some of the same self intetest entanglement traps that you highlight.

    With NWAC the problem lies in part with the conflict of interest between the Commercial Guide centric private nonprofit organizational branch (Friends of NWAC) and the Forest Service operated Forecasting branch of NWAC.

    This conflict of interest is leading to Avalanche incident and snow instability observations being inaccurately reported to the public.

    The non profit branch of NWAC employs commercial guides to collect mountain condition observations and give educational lectures and yet, if a near-miss avalanche incident occurs on a commercially guided trip that incident information is not always accurately reported to the public and often is not documented in the yearly NWAC Avalanche incident report summary.

    This conflicted relationship benefits commercial guide outfitters with both employment and cover as they believe that the public reporting of their near miss avalanche incidents is bad for business.

    However this pro quo relationalship is also bad for public safety.

    The Forest Service Forecasting branch if NWAC has been made aware of this conflict of interest.

    With the hiring of a new director, last winter season, overseeing the NWAC Forest Service employed forecasters, I believe steps are being undertaken to recognize and to improve the situation.

    The general public is also stepping up in the reporting of snow and weather observations to NWAC, something that I've publically advocated for years.

    Now if I can only convince the Forest Service that Landing and operating a commercial helicopter-ski service in the same terrain used by private human-powered ski touring groups increases our risk of harm.

    We have already had three helicopter crashes under the North Cascade Heli- ski FS issued special use permit and several unreported near miss incidents between the helicopter and touring private skiers.

    In addition, there was one recent near miss incident where a North Cascade Mountain guide, out on a commercial guided ski tour, intentionally triggered an avalanche that hit a local skier out for a ski day in our cherished mountains.

    Near miss and actual accident incidents are always an indication that faulty safety practices are at play. However, when those incidents involve a privileged Commercial Outfitter operating on public land, the Forest Service shows little interest in successfully mitigating Public Safety issues.

    Chris H.
    Heli-free North Cascades

  7. why do we bother with trying to fix something that is, by Professor Mass's own account, broken and not improving? Toss out the rubbish, move to the model that works, and be done with it.

    1. Because it's FAR from that simple. There is no "model that works" all the time. Somehow has to lead the improvement process, and right now everyone is tweaking their own model individually. The goal of EPIC is to bring the community together to do so.

  8. Does the United States NEED to be the top in everything?
    Why can't Europe be number one in somethings? China in others?

    Does the US need to have it's own space station orbiting the Moon? Do we need a new Neutrino detector run by NSF at the South Pole for $400m? Do we need to go to Mars in ten years, will it be gone in 20 years? Do we need better AI so we can have self-driving trucks and Amazon can fire all it's truck drivers?

    There is only so much R&D a country can do for science? A lot of the Private Sector R&D seems to be focused on developing AI to eliminate jobs.

    We need to make better choices as a society and have consistent long term goals for both private and public R&D dollars.


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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