NCEP director looks beyond bad weather

Having grown up on a farm in North Carolina, George Murphy understands, perhaps more than most, how weather can impact people's livelihoods and everyday lives.

"Weather is the typical thing that really governs your life," said Murphy, director of central operations at the National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Growing up on a farm, we used an almanac, and later, weather forecasts to determine when to plant. We do a lot of the same things now, just on a much more sophisticated basis."

Murphy, who holds bachelor's and master's degrees in mathematics, said the idea of working with the largest and latest computers was what got him interested in a job at NOAA in the first place. And since he started there in the early 1970s, weather forecasting has improved significantly, thanks to increasingly powerful computers and a better understanding of the conditions of the atmosphere.

The Cray Research Inc. C90 supercomputer his group uses to analyze weather data can complete 6 billion calculations per second, in what Murphy calls a "real problem" weather situation. He said the next generation of computers NCEP will purchase in two years will allow users to run various models at the same time for faster and more accurate forecasts.

"In the future, we'll be running a series of models instead of a sequence of models," he said. "We'll be doing many things at the same time, and that really lends itself to the idea of having scalable architectures."

Murphy is in charge of 100 people who run the networks, supercomputers and centralized forecasting models that deliver forecasts to the nine national centers making up NCEP. Central operations, located in Camp Springs, Md., acts as the nucleus of NCEP.

"We're a staff organization that will guarantee that you would never be without communications, that the computers would always be up and that models would always be on time," he said.

The information Murphy's group sends out to the centers is the basis for weather forecasts and warnings issued by weather offices throughout the country.

"Years ago, the center of operations was a large computer center," he said. "And as time progressed, the [focus] of what we do now is a computer network, of which the large computer center is a node, but a very important node."

Murphy's first job with the government was with the Veterans Administration hospital in Washington, D.C., in the early 1960s. With a grant from the National Institutes of Health, Murphy and a team of mathematicians and cardiologists developed a system that could decipher an EKG readout and determine whether it was normal or abnormal.

The system is still being used today at the VA to do mass screenings.

"It's interesting because it is similar to the kinds of things we do in weather forecasting, in terms of the mathematics," Murphy said. "Over there, we were dealing with EKG waves, and at NOAA we're dealing with spectral waves."

An enthusiastic mathematician at heart, Murphy spends a lot of time in schools teaching kids that physics and math can be fun and can be applied to everyday life.

He views his activities as way to teach students - potential NOAA employees - how the work the agency does impacts everyone's lives - farmers and students alike.

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