Government Shutdown Means Some Weather Forecasting Tools are at Risk - NBC 10 Philadelphia

Government Shutdown Means Some Weather Forecasting Tools are at Risk

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    NBC10 First Alert meteorologist Krystal Klei analyzing forecast models in the newsroom at the Comcast Technology Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Jan. 8, 2019.

    You’ve heard our NBC10 First Alert weather team talk about it before: "We're watching the differences between the American and European weather models."

    This week is no different. The team is watching those models, and many others, ahead of a possible winter storm over the weekend.

    But the American model is being affected in ways unrelated to Mother Nature. The federal government shutdown, now three weeks in, has begun taking a toll on the weather world.

    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, is functioning under a "partial shutdown." 

    Agencies you may be familiar with, like the National Weather Service and the Weather Prediction Center and many others weather- and climate-related, all operate within NOAA.

    These agencies analyze data, develop forecasts, and provide statistics the NBC10 First Alert weather team (and meteorologists across the country) use to make their official forecasts each day.

    NOAA's partial shutdown means operations that are considered “mission critical” are still functioning. Those operations include things like populating the weather.gov website with forecasts, and ensuring major weather events are watched and warned across the country. Those government employees whose jobs fall under the status “mission critical” are still working, while not being paid.

    Unfortunately, maintenance on the American computer model, known as the Global Forecasting System (GFS), is not considered critical.

    The result?

    According to the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang, the GFS is running poorly.

    Typically, a large team of scientists works quality control on the model to ensure the future forecasts for winds, temperatures, rain or snow (and a ton of other factors) are the most accurate they can possibly be. They’re checking data is entered into the extremely intricate model correctly. They’re ensuring no errors occur within the system’s output. They’re always working on improvements to the model.

    Without a team to do these daily tasks, the GFS begins to degrade.

    The Washington Post spoke to members of various departments who confirmed the quality of the model (and several other American computer models) is lower, and there’s simply no one to fix it.

    There is some good news for you at home.

    Our NBC10 First Alert Weather Team doesn’t use only one model to make a forecast.  Instead, the team peels through many models daily. Based off the various models, each models’ different solutions (models typically put out several updated data sets each day) and the team’s knowledge of model bias (some computer models run hot or cold, snowy or dry), our team of meteorologists makes a specific forecast for our region's many neighborhoods. We update those forecasts throughout the day—and now the team knows to work around the weakness of the GFS.