When the 26th Olympiad begins this July in Atlanta, athletes will compete at venues spread across one of the most weather-wild regions ever to host the summer games.
As a result, the National Weather Service (NWS) is mounting an unprecedented effort to provide the most frequent and site-specific forecasts ever.
And within the next few years, the new tools and techniques used in Atlanta will become the standard for generating local weather forecasts throughout the United States. "You're seeing a prototype for future National Weather Service offices," says Lans Rothfusz, the meteorologist in charge of the Weather Service's Olympics Weather Support Office in Peachtree City, Ga.
Olympic organizers are looking to the forecasts to help them anticipate conditions that can spawn violent summer storms and tax even the most hardened athletes and spectators. In the Atlanta summer, average daytime highs can range from the high 80s to low 90s - and occasionally hit triple digits F. - with high humidity. On average, thunderstorms occur on 10 out of July's 31 days.
Already, the anticipated heat and humidity have forced Atlanta's organizers to forgo one Olympic tradition. Instead of scheduling the men's marathon for the late afternoon so that it would lead into the closing ceremonies, the race will begin at 7 a.m.
"Forecasting is extraordinarily important to these games," says Laurie Olsen, spokeswoman for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. During the 1984 summer games in Los Angeles, "you didn't have a variety of weather circumstances from one venue to the next. In the Southeast, the terrain and weather vary significantly."
For example, while 18 venues will be held within 1.5 miles of Atlanta's center, another 17 are spread throughout Georgia and into Tennessee. Preliminary soccer matches will be held in cities ranging from Washington, D.C., to Miami.
And while thunderstorms are the biggest concern, everyone is mindful that the games are being held during hurricane season.
To help Olympic officials and spectators make sense of it all, the Weather Service is marshaling 23 forecasters and the fruits of a $4.5 billion, two-decade-long modernization program. The effort represents the first time that all the new technologies have been integrated to provide published forecasts. The elements range from a new generation of weather satellites and ground-based radar to a network of automated weather stations that report on everything from temperature and dew point to barometric pressure and sky conditions.
Fed into supercomputers, data from these sensors will fuel new weather-forecasting models, including one developed at Colorado State University that will allow forecasters to simulate weather conditions with unmatched detail. Currently, NWS models cover a state with an imaginary grid whose lines cross every 40 kilometers (42.4 miles). These are the points at which the models simulate weather conditions that meteorologists use to help form their final local forecast. The new computer model cuts that distance to 8 kilometers. The result? Until now, Mr. Rothfusz says, forecasters could model only large masses of thunderstorms. "Now, we can model individual thunderstorms, their development, and where they are likely to move."
In addition, the high-powered supercomputers will allow Olympics forecasters to issue outlooks every four hours, rather than twice a day.
For all the "motherhood and apple pie" appeal in providing high-tech support for the Olympics, the NWS's effort has become embroiled in budget politics in Washington. The high-profile effort to serve the Olympics is taking place in the context of efforts to downsize the agency, a commitment that congressional sources say the agency made when the modernization program began. Indeed, agency officials touted the modernization program as a way to cut costs, says one congressional staff member tasked with tracking the NWS budget.
"The Weather Service is worried about the future and budgets and is looking to garner public support," the staffer says. "The public is picking up an enormous tab for what could be provided commercially." The agency's Olympic effort is costing taxpayers about $1 million, the staffer says.
Yet whether the private sector could provide such services is at best muddy. Pulling together an effort approaching the NWS's "would be cost-prohibitive for the private sector," says Russell Christie, director of operations for the Weather Services Corporation in Lexington, Mass. Moreover, he adds, private weather companies rely on Weather Service data as the basis for information they provide their clients, which include Olympic teams.
The General Accounting Office has hurled another lightning bolt at the agency. At issue is the keystone of the agency's hardware upgrades: a computer system that allows forecasters to overlay information from radar, satellites, and ground-based sensors on one display. Known by its acronym AWIPS, the single display allows meteorologists to monitor conditions and make forecasts without having to race from one terminal to another for different instrument readings. Moreover, the information is processed and displayed without the delays of the old system. And as it is implemented, all of the forecast offices would be linked through AWIPS.
According to the GAO, the $525 million AWIPS system has yet to show that it can meet the agency's mission by leading to improved forecasts and fewer forecast offices and staff.
It is a criticism that agency officials hope to put to rest in Atlanta.
"Our mission is to protect life and property," Rothfusz says. "That's what this is all about."