New NOAA forecast model could buy hours of time in the face of severe weather

When it comes to surviving natural disasters, time is of the essence. Even a few extra minutes of notice can be the difference between life and death, but now, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researchers believe that they’ve created a forecast model that can give not minutes, but hours of advance notice regarding severe weather.

In May, NOAA conducted its first field test of a new Warn-on-Forecast system, described as a “new research tool that has the potential to dramatically improve predictions of extreme weather at specific locations up to three hours in advance.” On May 16, forecasters were able to alert residents of western Oklahoma to the possibility of large hail and tornadoes 90 minutes before the severe weather touched down.

“We had a picture of the storms and their evolution before they became life-threatening,” said Todd Lindley, science operations officer with the NOAA NWS Norman Forecast Office in Oklahoma. “We used this model guidance to forecast with greater lead time and greater confidence.”

While the Warn-on-Forecast system was naught but a prototype at that point, it still proved enormously helpful.

“Based on the information from the NWS, we knew storms would intensify when they reached our area and were able to activate the outdoor warning sirens about 30 minutes ahead of the tornado,” said Lonnie Risenhoover from Beckham County Emergency Management.

While tornado warnings have traditionally been issued by forecasters who must manually examine satellite data and volatility in the atmosphere, this new system is capable of digesting far more data and analysis than a human mind. Enormous amounts of satellite, radar, and surface readings are given to a prediction model that determines how this data will ultimately affect the weather. This allows forecasters to predict hazardous weather in half-mile blocks every two minutes, Science Alert reported.

“That level of detail and lead time in a forecast is new,” NSSL director Steve Koch said. “To have information conveying a sense of certainty in so small of an area that far in advance is a success.”

While Warn-on-Forecast isn’t totally operational yet, it serves as an important step in more accurate weather predictions, which could save many lives.