NOAA, FAA software improves forecasts

New weather forecasting software developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with support from the Federal Aviation Administration, is providing more accurate weather forecasts and improving safety for aviation.

The new modeling software, which went live earlier this month, will help meteorologists more precisely forecast weather that could affect airplanes, such as clear-air turbulence, icing, clouds, winds and conditions that could cause severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, and snow and ice storms.

The model, called Rapid Update Cycle-2, was developed by NOAA's Forecast Systems Laboratory and funded by NOAA and the FAA's Weather Research Program. Computer modeling is the foundation of all National Weather Service weather, flood and climate forecasts.

RUC-2 is an improvement over its predecessor because it provides updates hourly instead of once every three hours, it provides better detail by focusing on smaller areas, or "grids," of the country, and it produces more accurate information because the updates are done so frequently, said Tom Schlatter, chief of NOAA's Forecast Systems Laboratory.

The result is a faster, more detailed and useful forecast. "Until we could cycle every hour, approximately two-thirds of the hourly data collected was going unused," Schlatter said. "This way, we can use most of the observations taken."

Observations are taken at about 1,000 surface observation sites nationwide. Commercial airplanes also collect wind and temperature readings while in flight. This information, along with data gleaned from sources such as Doppler weather radar, is sent to NOAA and fed into the RUC-2 model, which is running on a supercomputer at NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Prediction.

After the model crunches the numbers, the data is sent in graphical or numerical form to users nationwide, including National Weather Service forecast offices, commercial airlines and NOAA's Weather Aviation Center in Kansas City, Mo.

The forecasts not only will help pilots avoid dangerous weather but also will help save fuel, said Ken Leonard, team leader of the FAA's Aviation Weather Research Program.

"I think the model has benefits in that it gives clear understanding of wind, icing and turbulence," Leonard said. "Reduction of wind air saves airlines and the public a lot of money in fuel costs. More accurate [forecasts] on weather conditions can help with more efficient [flight planning], and there are also safety benefits."

Late this year or early next year, United Airlines plans to use the raw data output from

RUC-2 to help plan the safest and most fuel-efficient routes, said Carl Knable, manager of meteorology at United Airlines. The RUC-2 raw data will allow United to calculate its flight plans and altitudes over the United States. In the future, United hopes to use the model data to produce turbulence forecasts, Knable added.

Leonard said his group's goal is to develop new products, enhance existing products and improve the way the information is disseminated to users. "It doesn't do us any good if we do great research and can't find a way to get products to operational users," he said. "RUC is a good example of how we've done that."

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