Q. What does your daily role at the National Weather Service entail?
A. I am responsible for managing and leading the weather service through its current forecast process, advancing our observations, disseminating [information], integrating new science and technology into operations, and managing partnerships so that we can provide better services in the future. As director, I also oversee the National Weather Service’s day-to-day operations towards its mission of protecting lives and mitigating property loss. I am also responsible for managing and executing plans with the resources appropriated by Congress.
Why is the weather so hard to forecast?
We are actually showing more success with [predicting] extreme events now than ever before and are now able to forecast the likelihood of an extreme weather event 4 to 8 days in advance. However, [forecasting] the magnitude of the event still remains a challenge. We have seen some notable precipitation events in the past year such as the ones in Florida and in Georgia where heavy rainfall was predicted, but not the 20 inches that actually occurred.
The same thing happened in Colorado last year, and it was a very tough forecast in that the atmosphere was not in one of its more predictable states. As a result, the likelihood of a heavy rain event was highlighted several days in advance, but the magnitude of that event didn’t become readily apparent until it was actually starting. So we have to be careful about how we define predictability. We are getting better with the extreme events - to the point where some people claim we do better with the extreme events now than we do with light to moderate events.
Recently people are quick to point to extreme weather as proof of global warming. Does this make the NWS’s job difficult from a PR perspective?
We’re obviously very careful with any attribution of a particular event to global warming and I think most of the climate scientists would agree that it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to attribute one weather event to global warming. What one must look for is the trend, but even when you’re doing so, you have to ask yourself, “What kind of baseline do we have from an observational perspective, before even talking about a trend?” So for example, people have asked whether we can connect the extreme hurricanes and typhoons over the last decade to climate change when today the quality and quantity of data sources on the number and intensity of storms are different from the data available 100, 50, or even 30 years ago.
We’re working with the research community to [identify] the hypotheses that are being offered by the global climate community. One hypothesis states that as the atmosphere is warmer, it can hold more water vapor, and so we should see more extreme rainfall events around the globe keeping in mind and that these events themselves can be catastrophic given the amount of rainfall over a short period of time.
There is also ongoing research efforts that include the use of the numerical models run for long periods of time with various CO2 trends imposed to determine what happens to the intensity, location and number of storms as the “climates” in those models evolve. There are research projects that count the number of intense hurricanes that form in their model simulations and those results are just starting to become available.
Are there any types of events that do seem to provide proof of global warming?
One aspect that seems very convincing, at this point, is that we are seeing sea water levels rise and increasing damage across the coasts, not only from the big storms like Hurricane Sandy, but what we would have considered more normal winter cyclones.
Additionally, in Alaska, we’re losing the ice sheet that has protected the shoreline from the effects of storms. Major storm systems now drive waves into coastal communities that used to be protected by these ice sheets. The damage there is immediate and very visible. So those types of connections I think are more readily apparent than some of the hypotheses that have been offered and are still being worked on by the science community.
So are rising sea levels the most dangerous threat right now?
Well I would say the sea level rise is currently the most visible. People are seeing it - the coastal communities are seeing and feeling it. And the sea level rise is linked directly to not only the warming that’s melting the ice sheets at unprecedented levels, but also as the ocean itself warms, it volumetrically expands. And the damage associated with these two factors is becoming more apparent.
Does social media influence the way the National Weather Service operates today?
Social media plays a huge role in several ways. First of all, the NWS is relying on Facebook and Twitter feeds to help us with our situational awareness during critical situations. I think one of the clearest examples is the February 2013 East Coast snowstorm that produced very heavy snows in New England and eastern Long Island, New York. The big forecast issue there was the rain-snow line, how it was shifting south and west, and how it was predicted to move just prior to the evening rush hour.
The forecast, of course, is based in large part on numeric models. [Our prediction] of the rain-to-snow transition was a function of these models, but the situational awareness and the confirmation that these models is going to be correct is based in large part on our official observations, but also on the Twitter and the other social media feeds that all our forecast offices and our operational centers are plugged into.
The other aspect of course is in the distribution of our warnings and forecasts - NWS offices can Tweet their warnings and social media picks up on it and then it becomes a force multiplier for people becoming more aware of exactly what we’re saying. So we’re seeing social media’s effect in a dissemination aspect as well.
Does your work also involve coordination with international scientists?
The weather-climate-water community is a global community. There’s a lot of interaction at various international conferences and the World Meteorological Organization. Many of the models we run are part of the multi-model ensembles that are run and shared among the international modeling centers.
From a day-to-day forecasting perspective, we need a global observing system to drive all our numerical models. Even though people may just be interested in their local forecast, that local forecast is imbedded within a global model, that’s driven by global observing systems and observations provided by countries all over the globe. For the forecasts themselves, we interact with European, U.K., and Canadian centers to share model information that influences our real time forecasts. So these partnerships are extremely important both from a research and an operational perspective, and part of the reason we’re seeing such a dramatic improvement in our extended range forecast is based on the partnerships.
Dr. Louis Uccellini is the Director of the National Weather Service and the Assistant Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). An acclaimed author and researcher, he has published over 60 peer-reviewed articles and has received numerous awards including the NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement, and the U.S. Presidential Distinguished Rank Award (the highest award achievable for a senior executive in the U.S. Government) in recognition of his research and leadership. Dr. Uccellini is also a fellow of the American Meteorological Society, where he recently served as the society’s president. He holds a Ph.D., Masters, and Bachelor’s Degree in Meteorology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.