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A man scrapes heavy wet snow off of his car.

A man scrapes snow off of his car on Wednesday in Virginia, not far from Washington, which was mostly spared the white stuff.

Photograph by Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images

Peter Miller

for National Geographic News

Published March 7, 2013

The Europeans got it right again. The big snow storm predicted to hit Washington, D.C., yesterday—up to ten inches, American forecasters said—never materialized. It was too warm, as European predictors had expected, for snow to accumulate in the nation's capital, which mostly saw rain, even as some suburbs got six inches or more of the heavy, wet white stuff.

It was yet another example of the shortcomings of the U.S. weather prediction system, said Cliff Mass, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Washington in Seattle. Compared to the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting, he said, the U.S. National Weather Service is falling further and further behind.

On your weather blog, you've described weather prediction in the U.S. as "second rate." Why do you think the European Centre tends to be more accurate?

Several reasons. One is that they have ten times more computer power than we do, which allows them to run their weather prediction model at a higher resolution than ours, roughly twice the resolution. Imagine a three-dimensional grid covering the atmosphere. They are able to define things much better—structures in the atmosphere and physical processes—because they're using a finer grid.

Can you give an example of the European model outperforming U.S. models?

I could give you lots of them. The most famous was Hurricane Sandy. The European Centre predicted that the storm would swing toward the East Coast two days before the American model predicted it. That's a pretty significant difference.

What would it take for the U.S. to have a model as good as the European one?

It would be very easy and it's outrageous it hasn't been done. We need more computer power for the National Weather Service. One way to do that would be to repurpose one of the supercomputers that NOAA uses for climate change research. Another would be to buy a new system. Why not use some of the $50 billion from the Hurricane Sandy relief bill?

In the meantime, why don't we just use the European Centre's model to predict our weather?

The National Weather Service already has access to it, but the European Centre is only doing global predictions. They won't do high resolution predictions for the U.S. Our problem is that we have inferior regional and local forecasting because we don't have the resources in place.

In any event, the European Centre is not the best you can do. I'm convinced we could do far better. Weather prediction was invented in the U.S. We should be able to do far better. But we can't do that if we don't have the computer power.

Any idea how budget cuts from the sequester will affect U.S. weather prediction?

The weather service was already starved for funds. It's in profound trouble. This is just going to push them over.

7 comments
John C.
John C.

So it's not possible to forecast "weather" accurately a few days in advamce but it's possible to forecast multiple weather events, i.e., "climate", accurately 100 years from now. It's like saying that you can't accurately predict Apple's stock price next week, but you can 20 years from now. Give me a break.

Phil Blank
Phil Blank

I saw the storm on the way and tracked it as it passed south of me here in Northern Ohio and I know it would hit where it would. How?

Keep reading.

Our local weather people get their data from NOAA dot gov.

What they do with it or how they interpert it is up to them and some times they blow-it.

Get your weather from NOAA and enter your zip code in the slot at the upper left of the screen.

Gregory S.
Gregory S.

Another example of how the U.S. is falling behind the cutting edge in the sciences. The inevitable long-term result will be further economic decline in the future. What kept the U.S. in front in the latter half of the 20th century was a continued committment to investment in the sciences so that the vast amount of the products the world wanted were first produced here.Investment in infrastrucure also is an economic boon which has been more and more neglected.

Clytamnestra Dunge
Clytamnestra Dunge

@Martin Strachota 

i suppose he's writing for an american audience, but it does get tiresome for europeans to always hear the bragging of 'everything important was invented in the usa'. uhm, no (usually). science is a group-effort, with people from all over the world providing a piece of the puzzle, which others than build onto. american scientists were oftentimes just quicker in running to the patent office and newspaper and unduly laying claim to an entire field of research.


as for the weather-forecasting: i have the idea that the problems go much deeper than 'not enough money'. that despite what the author suggests there is also a problem with supply, with educating and training enough new weather-scientists and with doing fundamental research. and that this is a problem with american science as a whole. just claiming your country is 'at the forefront of technical knowledge' does not make it true.

Kyle Towers
Kyle Towers

@John C. - Your argument is nonsense as it's based on faulty definitions and a misunderstanding.  Climate is not "multiple weather events" any more than tides are multiple wave events.  Although you may have made the error yourself, it's quite possible that it was fed to you by the climate denier movement.  It is just one of an endless number of fallacious and often transparently nonsensical "arguments" that they peddle to the ignorant who are seeking confirmation of their anti-science biases.

J K
J K

"Climate denier", what exactly might that be, someone who denies that climates exist upon this planet? I don't know of a single person or animal who happens to be in denial of a climate in fact existing. "Anti-science"? Well, you don't need to be scientific to understand that a climate exists, because you feel it. These here are some rather interesting, enlightened concepts which you possess, and I'll be certain to pass along Captain Obvious' best regards.

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