Everybody Talks About the Weather…

As another hurricane season gets underway, grim memories of the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy are still fresh in the minds and hearts of many Americans.

On Tuesday, as he joined New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on the Jersey Shore to tout his administration’s role in the rebuilding effort, President Obama acknowledged, “We all understand there is still an awful lot of work to be done.”

As some of the victims of the destruction continue to struggle to rebuild their homes and put their lives back together, much of the focus is now on preparing for future hurricanes.

Con Ed, which was sharply criticized after Hurricane Sandy when 975,000 of their customers in New York City and Westchester County lost power — with tens of thousands still out after 10 days —  says it is taking proactive steps this time around. According to CEO Kevin Burk, the company is building platforms and walls to protect vital equipment from flooding, and plans to invest $1 billion over the next four years in storm protection work.

But like the rebuilding, much still needs to be done.

“There is a lot more work to do,” said Burke.

Ultimately, whether a hurricane will hit and how much damage it will do is solely in the Hands of the Creator. But we are obligated to undertake the requisite hishtadlus, which includes improving both the infrastructure on the ground and the ability to warn a population about an approaching storm.

When forecasters from the National Weather Service track a hurricane, they use models from several different supercomputers located around the world to create their predictions.

According to an Associated Press report, some of those models are more accurate than others. During Hurricane Sandy, for instance, the model from the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting in the United Kingdom predicted eight days before landfall that the large storm would hit the East Coast, while the American supercomputer model showed Sandy drifting out to sea.

The American model eventually predicted Sandy’s landfall four days before the storm hit — plenty of time for preparation — but revealed a potential weakness in the American computer compared to the European system. This left some meteorologists fuming.

“Let me be blunt: The state of operational U.S. numerical weather prediction is an embarrassment to the nation, and it does not have to be this way,” insisted Cliff Maas, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington.

Meteorologists agree that the two American supercomputers that provide storm models are underpowered — which is why the National Weather Service plans on upgrading those computers in the next two years.

Some forecasters say the average person living in a coastal area shouldn’t worry about the capability gap between the computers.

“I really could care less which the better model is, because we have access to them both,” said James Franklin, branch chief of the hurricane specialist unit. “It’s immaterial to us.”

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami use both American and European models — and other models — and then average them together for a storm’s projected path.

But other experts argue that the fact that the American supercomputer is lacking in processing power does need to be addressed, because in the long run, improving its computing power will increase the overall quality of data for scientists who are drawing from multiple sources.

“You want to have the best information possible when you’re trying to decide what to do,” said Jeff Masters, Director of Meteorology at Weather Underground, a forecasting service. “Having better forecast models is going to improve your chances.”

Experts also say the quality of a nation’s computer capability is emblematic of its underlying commitment to research and innovation.

According to Richard Rood, a professor at the University of Michigan’s department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Science, the meteorologists who run the European computer have invested time, effort and money into developing algorithms.

The European center has one budget that focuses only on research and development relating to medium-range weather, while NOAA has a fragmented budget and multiple research and development projects “loosely” managed under multiple organizations.

Some analysts have argued that the primary reason that a significant number of individuals ignored warnings and stayed behind in flood zones during Sandy, was because of the impact of Hurricane Irene ended up being less than had been predicted. Many others heeded the orders issued by the authorities, a fact that helped save lives.

As is true with all mortal inventions and calculations, the accuracy of storm forecasting will never be perfect. But every effort should be made to try to improve the process of forecasting powerful storms, and when appropriate warning the local populace.