IT tracks El Nino's path

El Nino the weather system that is creating waves in the Pacific Ocean also is creating a storm of activity among federal information technology practitioners and research scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its related agencies.

From satellites to buoys to telecommunications systems and Internet applications the current El Nino has inspired a collective effort by agencies to measure record store analyze and predict what promises to be one of the most unusual weather systems of the century.

El Nino is a warm weather system that develops over the Pacific Ocean every two to seven years changing weather patterns - the amount of rainfall and the temperature - across the globe.

"What's exciting is that this El Nino is a very large one and we're observing it while it is happening " said Nancy Soreide associate director for information management at the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) in Seattle.

Soreide who has worked at the lab since 1975 said her agency is better able to obtain data than it was during the 1982-1983 El Nino the second-largest this century.

"At that time [during the early 1980s] we had only a small amount of capability to monitor what was happening " Soreide said. "The El Nino was over before we knew it was occurring. For someone like me who has worked in this field for over 20 years and has been around the technological changes it's just breathtaking."

Armed with the data scientists develop short- and long-range weather forecasts that accurately account for the El Nino effect said Ants Leetmaa director of the Climate Prediction Center at the National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) a NOAA agency. "The short-range forecasts give advanced warnings and are primarily used for protection of life and property."

Over the long term more accurate forecasts should identify regions of the country prone to seasonal flooding and predict energy consumption. "Ultimately farmers would know several seasons in advance how much rain and sunshine is available for crops " he said.

Many of the new forecasting capabilities come from advances made during the last 30 years.

At the center of El Nino's data collection is a network of 70 buoys stretching across the breadth of the tropical Pacific Ocean which is maintained by PMEL as part of a joint international effort that includes the United States Japan South Korea France and Taiwan.

The buoys which have barrel-shaped fiberglass and foam bases with aluminum towers and stainless steel bridles carry instruments such as anemometers to measure wind speeds thermometers to measure air and sea temperatures and barometers to gauge atmospheric pressure.

These data elements critical parameters for tracking El Nino's progress are transmitted via the Argos satellite system to NCEP's central operations in Suitland Md.

There on the center's supercomputer "all of those observations get processed into a digital picture that forms the starting point for a projection forward in time of the conditions of the atmosphere and the ocean " said Ronald McPherson director of the NCEP.

According to Leetmaa the use of supercomputers is essential. "The programs that you run for the forecasts such as atmospheric or climate forecasts are very complex " Leetmaa said. "There are thousands of lines of code so in order to get a forecast out in a timely fashion you need that speed to go through all of those lines of code to get the answer."

Once the initial number-crunching is done the information is stored on large file servers where researchers using workstations analyze that data and prepare diagrams that the center places on its Web page for access by the public said Vernon Kousky research meteorologist at the NCEP.

The data processed by the supercomputer also is transmitted to the Global Telecommunications System where it can be picked up by meteorological centers around the world.

The information is also sent to relevant government agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Interior Department.

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