While it's true that weather forecasters can't change the weather, NOAA meteorologists do more than just talk about it. In order to provide accurate forecasts and weather warnings, forecasters need to understand what's happening around us now and have ways to visualize what's happened in the past and what's expected in the future.
An Information System is a computer system that collects, stores, integrates, analyzes, edits, and displays information (weather and climate information, in this case) of many types. Such a system allows a weather forecaster or research scientist to view and manipulate the information to help him or her understand what happened in the past and what's happening now, and use that to help decide what's going to happen in the hours, days, and years to come.
Arguably the largest Information System in the world is the World Wide Web. Innovative Web pages which display a wide variety of historical information, current observations, and forecasts are maintained within the various divisions of ESRL. Examples include the Global Monitoring Divison's Data Products site, the Physical Sciences Division's climate data repository and near-surface weather data site, and the Global Systems Division's MADIS Surface Data site. Some real-time observations data are even gathered via the Web. For example, the Citizen Weather Observer Program collects data from all over the world contributed by people with home automated weather stations.
The primary weather information system developed by ESRL is National Weather Service's AWIPS - Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System, illustrated here.
There is a vast amount of information available to weather and climate forecasters and researchers, ranging from historical reports to current observations of many sorts to computer-generated forecasts of the weather many days or years in the future. Satellites and radar provide pictures of what's happening now; weather stations relay temperature, wind, and pressure reports; sensors carried by balloon or aircraft report conditions at various heights overhead; and other systems provide information about many other weather-related phenomena, from ocean winds and water temperature to clouds and lightning. Computer forecasting programs produce forecasts at thousands of locations and for many days in the future. Weather forecasters and research scientists need display systems to organize and make sense of all of this information.
ESRL's information systems provide easy ways for weather and climate researchers to examine historical and current data that help them understand how the oceans and atmosphere influence each other and apply that information to better predict what's ahead.
The AWIPS weather system provides the environment in which National Weather Service forecasters do their day-to-day job - where they come to understand what's happening in the weather and where they generate routine forecasts and warnings of severe weather. Today's NWS forecaster generally doesn't write forecasts. Instead, he or she manages a suite of weather information that is used as the source of computer-generated words and pictures.
ESRL's Web-based information is used by a wide variety of people, including students, weather forecasters, research scientists, and members of the general public.
In addition to National Weather Service forecasters, ESRL's AWIPS system is used by Air Force weather forecasters supporting Space Shuttle and satellite launches at Cape Canaveral in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Government forecasters in South Korea and Taiwan also use versions of the same system for their countries' weather forecasting operations. Other systems derived from AWIPS are used to provide weather information to forest fire managers, emergency management officials during severe weather events or hurricanes, airlines and air traffic controllers, and highway departments.
ESRL scientists' work touches the general public in many ways, from daily weather forecasts to El Niņo and seasonal predictions, from the ozone hole and air pollution to melting glaciers and arctic ice.
Weather forecasting skill has improved steadily over the last several decades, as the number and quality of observations have increased and the speed and accuracy of computer-generated forecasts have improved. ESRL's information systems development has allowed weather forecasters to take advantage of these gains by providing ways to comprehend and manage this otherwise overwhelming amount of information. Studies showed that when the modern information system was made available to forecasters, the skill in predicting severe thunderstorms and tornadoes increased by some 15%. The new method of generating and disseminating forecasts now also allows the general public to get more accurate and location-specific forecasts than in the past, and provides information that can be used by private meteorologists to create forecasts tailored to the needs of commerce and industry.
Weather and climate forecasters know that the future is not easy to see. However, it's clear that forecasters and information systems developers will face many challenges in the future. New methods of measuring the atmosphere and predicting the weather are being developed by government, university, and industry researchers, and these observations and forecasts will need to be included in future information systems. In recent years, NOAA has had a goal to integrate all of its various data sets, from fishing to flying, in recognition that a combined ocean-atmosphere view is required to make the best weather and climate forecasts. ESRL scientists are developing new information systems to help forecasters and researchers collaborate and cooperate as they tap into these many datasets, and are exploring ways to provide easy access to new sources of information.
Meeting the challenge of integrating all of these components to help forecasters make increasingly accurate and specific predictions is a goal worthy of ESRL's dedicated staff.