Forecasting the perfect storm
Radar, satellites and computers played a role in helping predict 1991's 'perfect storm' days in advance, and forecasting technology is even better now
NOAA imagery of "the perfect storm"
Radar, satellites and computers played a role in helping National Weather
Service forecasters predict "the perfect storm" days in advance. The October
1991 storm — one of the worst in 50 years — pummeled the east coast from
Maine to Florida and served as the basis for the book and movie "The Perfect
At the time, new numerical weather models helped forecasters predict
extreme weather events two to four days out, said Louis Uccellini, director
of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Centers
for Environmental Prediction.
Since then, models have become even more accurate, have better resolution,
can run further out into the future and are capable of processing significantly
more satellite data, Uccellini said. In addition, computers are faster and
forecasters today have new tools in their arsenal, such as software that
helps them predict the height of ocean waves and the interval between waves.
"So when these storms happen again, expect [forecasters] to make better
forecasts," Uccellini said.
Bob Case, a retired NOAA meteorologist and the Boston-based forecaster
who coined the phrase "the perfect storm," said the weather models did a
"fantastic job" in helping him and other forecasters predict the storm.
"My job was enhanced and helped by the computers at the time," he said.
The data showed that the conditions were perfect for a monstrous storm in
the northern Atlantic Ocean.
Despite the data, it was difficult to convince the public of the severe
storm on the horizon because Boston was enjoying beautiful sunny weather
on that late October weekend, Case said.
Joe Sienkiewicz, a NOAA marine weather expert and a forecaster on duty
in Boston during the 1991 storm, remembers having to lay maps and other
paper documents all around him. "I had a 286 processor in front of me and
was embedded in paper," he said.
Now he has seven computer screens around him, including one that provides
Internet access. "We process a lot more data," he said.
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