WRF’s new construction zone

Research testbed will give modelers room to innovate

What will soon be the nation’s flagship computer model for weather prediction and research is getting a dedicated cyberspace where scientists can put it through cutting-edge experiments. The Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model—in the works since the late 1990s, and scheduled for operational use starting late next year—is the first client of the new Developmental Testbed Center (DTC). A joint effort of NCAR and NOAA, the center opens this autumn at NCAR’s Foothills Laboratory.

“The idea of the DTC is simple,” says Robert Gall. “It’s a place where you can go and try out new ideas in numerical weather prediction without interfering with forecast operations.” Gall takes the reins as founding director of the testbed after more than a decade as head of NCAR’s Mesoscale and Microscale Meteorology Division. He’ll continue as lead scientist for the U.S. Weather Research Program (USWRP).

Though located at NCAR, the center will be an autonomous entity, with much of the computing done by scientists at a distance. Its founders are starting off with about $600,000 of USWRP seed money while working to get longer-term support. The ultimate goal is about a dozen full-time staff and a strong visitor program, with an annual budget on the order of $5 million.

Testing a step earlier

Until now, the models used in daily forecast operations have been tested mainly at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP). Even after a model in development is frozen—its code mostly finalized—it gets another full year of rigorous test-driving at NCEP before National Weather Service forecasters can use it routinely.

The sheer size and scope of WRFcall for extraordinary testing. With a horizontal resolution of 1 to 10 km (0.6–6.2 miles), the model will generate mesoscale forecasts so detailed thatthey will resemble radar images. WRFis also designed to mesh easily with models of air chemistry and other specialized areas.

The new DTC will allow a wide range of new methods and model components to be thoroughly checked out before they are moved closer to operational use. The center will also maintain the code for WRF’s various permutations and keep an archive of each day’s forecasts, totaling 200 to 300 terabytes of data per year. Another task is to explore the best means of verifying the model’s performance, especially in predicting individual thunderstorms and other features that are omitted or more crudely predicted in current models.

A dual approach

In addition to the Boulder center, a parallel Operational Testbed Center (OTC) is in the cards, this one to be affiliated with NCEP, which is based in Camp Springs, Maryland. In the research and operations worlds, “we’re dealing with two very different communities,” says Steven Koch (NOAA Forecast Systems Laboratory), who worked closely with Gall in planning the DTC.

The idea is that, just as a new medication is tested first for safety and then for efficacy, WRF variants will go through two evaluation hoops. The first is in the Boulder-based DTC, where a promising new approach will be checked for its robustness in a variety of seasons, climates, and locations, with the code revised as needed along the way. It would then migrate to the OTC, where the code is frozen and checked for any bugs or biases that might show up only in real-time, 24/7 use.

The operational tests will help WRF serve a variety of users. In April, the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Federal Aviation Administration formalized an agreement with NOAA and NCAR to support WRF development. “The military has very different requirements and different missions [from civilian forecasting],” says Nelson Seaman (NCEP). “It’s not interested in whether it rains and spoils somebody’s picnic. It’s more concerned about things like the transportability of trucks through mud or the refractivity of radar signals.”

Seaman, a former military forecaster and a long-time professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University, came on board in late 2002 as the national program manager for WRF. He believes an operational testbed will be vital for taking code from the developmental testbed and tailoring it for various users. In the past, he says, “A research lab would develop code and it’d be up to two years before you could get it transitioned.”

To help keep the testbeds working in sync, Seaman hopes to see a few NCEP staff stationed long term at the DTC. “You’d want them to be thoroughly familiar with the operational setup at NCEP but also able to talk with researchers. It’s like building a bridge with one crew on one side of the river and one on the other. Where they meet is those DTC and OTC people sitting next to each other.”

The big freeze

WRF developers have been in high gear lately, finalizing the ensemble that will be frozen and tested for WRF’s operational debut in October 2004. This six-member ensemble will include three variants of a core WRF code developed at NCAR. Three other variants will based on core code from NCEP that is somewhat different in numerical structure from the NCAR code.

The uncertainty within these ensembles will be handled in a novel way. Most ensemble modeling on the global scale adds tiny perturbations to the initial conditions for each member. These represent “initial-state uncertainty”—the limits to our weather observing system—and they allow the ensemble to portray a broader range of forecast possibilities. But scientists are still exploring new methods for handling the physics in high-resolution weather models, where growing computer power allows finer and finer model grids. To capture that uncertainty, a few members of the WRF ensemble might include variations in their model physics instead of in their initial conditions.

All this testing and evaluation will give forecasters a much broader range of WRF options a year from now, according to Seaman. “It’s very exciting work.”

by Bob Henson

Hurricane-tested WRF nails Isabel

As Hurricane Isabel churned toward North Carolina in mid-September, a high-resolution configuration of WRF, oriented to reveal the tropical cyclone in detail, produced real-time forecasts. Up to twice a day, the model generated 120-hour forecasts at10-kilometer resolution, as well as 48-hour outlooks using a 4-km grid (as shown in the reflectivity image at right). WRF brought Isabel’s inner features into sharp focus. “Even at 10 kilometers, the model produced realistic structures, including spiral bands and an eye,” says NCAR’s Jordan Powers. When Isabel was nearing the coast, the WRF outlooks produced central pressures near 950 millibars (about 28.00”), and the model realistically depicted the hurricane’s large eye region. After WRF becomes an official operational model in 2004, its planners hope to see it coupled with ocean and/or wave models for even better forecasts of hurricanes. Real-time access is available via the NCAR/WRF Web site.

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The changing face of NCAR

Initiatives in Brief
Geographic Information Systems

UCAR Foundation launches tech-transfer firm

Women in meteorology: how long a minority?

Building a home for HIAPER


President’s Corner - Leaders: Born or made?
Congress looks at climate change

Web Watch - Soundings in action

Science Bit

UCAR Community Calendar