National Weather Service wraps up modernization

The National Weather Service last week announced it has completed deployment of a new weather processing system, which brings to an end the agency's 10-year, $4.5 billion modernization program to improve weather forecasting.

The Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System (AWIPS) integrates radar, satellite and sensor data on one workstation and replaces older systems that require forecasters to look at several different workstations to view the same information. AWIPS, which is now deployed at 152 sites nationwide, was designed to improve weather warnings and short-term forecasts.

AWIPS is the cornerstone of NWS' modernization effort, which also includes advanced Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites and Next Generation Weather Radar systems.

AWIPS provides a way to "put the information together and make it useful to meteorologists," said Robert Mallett, deputy secretary at the Commerce Department. "It allows forecasters to extract the most meaningful data from different sets of observations. It means fewer false alarms and more accurate weather forecasts."

Although NWS will not officially commission, or put into operation, all the AWIPS systems until next year, they already are being used in real-life situations. For example, NWS' Forecast Office in Norman, Okla., used AWIPS to help warn people almost 20 minutes ahead of the tornado outbreak that hit the state on May 3.

"Without the technology, training and good work force that was there, [the timely warnings] wouldn't have happened," said John Kelly, director of NWS.

NWS plans to incorporate new capabilities into AWIPS software as early as next year. Those additions will, for example, allow forecasters to prioritize the most severe weather threats in a particular area and make short-range forecasts about thunderstorm activity, which is important for aviation.

According NWS officials, AWIPS was deployed at less than the $550 million spending cap, which Congress placed on the program several years ago after costs continued to increase. Litton/PRC Inc. was awarded the AWIPS contract in 1992.

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