Outlook Is Cloudy for Weather Forecasting

FOR people who make weather forecasts and the rest of us who use them, there's good news for the '90s. The American Meteorological Society (AMS) sees "major opportunities ... for substantially improving weather forecasting skill and capability across the board." A committee of the National Academies of Science and Engineering says the United States National Weather Service's current modernization plan "represents a quantum leap in forecasting which will save lives, reduce injuries, and help protect property."

How disappointing, then, to also learn that budget trimming threatens to cripple this great leap forward in weather forecasting.

The AMS reports that advances in radar, satellites, communications, and other forecasting-related technologies promise "substantial improvement" in severe storm forecasting "if fully exploited." Yet the report of the academies' National Research Council concludes that contemplated reductions in the weather service modernization plan would lead to "serious degradation" that would curtail such exploitation.

The key element in the original plan is a national network of 115 forecasting offices equipped with the Next Generation Weather Radar (NEXRAD) system. A NEXRAD unit would cover a 125-mile radius around each of the 115 forecasting centers. Together with advanced computer processing and communications and a new satellite observing system, these centers could provide more accurate and more timely severe weather tracking and warnings. A one-year test of this system has been scheduled for the midwestern US a r

ound 1994.

But the Department of Commerce is considering using the test to see if a forecasting center could expand its coverage so that the national network would need only 50 centers instead of the planned 115 centers. This is the system-degrading change that the National Research Council committee says it strongly opposes.

The committee further notes that inadequate funding, as well as technical challenges, are delaying the new satellite system. Also, development problems are stalling the new radar technology. Unisys Corporation, the radar supplier, wants more money because of unexpected cost overruns. Last March, the National Weather Service told a subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee that it is considering whether or not to cancel the $700 million Unisys contract and seek another manufactur e

r. The issue may not be resolved before summer.

The American Meteorological Society notes major forecasting gains made since the 1950s. These include "skillful predictions" of development and motion of large storm systems up to 48 hours in advance and anticipation of major storms and cold waves three to five days head of time.

Now, the society says, "the gap between the present practical limit of useful five- to seven-day forecasts and the theoretical limit of 10 days to two weeks can be closed." Let's get on with it.

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