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Spring 1998

What's new with COMET? Plenty.


When the Cooperative Program for Meteorology, Education and Training (COMET) began in 1990, it had a single mission--training National Weather Service (NWS) and military forecasters--and a projected eight-year lifespan. In 1998, it's not only alive, it's thriving. While staying true to its roots, COMET is growing in new directions, with fresh initiatives, a new category of students, and a novel way of providing instruction. Here's a rundown on some recent developments.

New clients: Airplane pilots

Several recent fatal air incidents, such as a turbulence-caused death on a commercial plane last year, may be due to the pilots' or air traffic controllers' lack of knowledge about dangerous weather conditions. These tragedies have heightened a growing awareness that pilots aren't being taught enough about weather.

Last year, President Bill Clinton committed the United States to reducing fatal air accident rates by 80% within five years. Improved weather training will be a giant step toward that goal. In response to the president's action, the Navy, the Air Force, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Meteorology created an Aviation Weather Consortium at the COMET program to oversee development of a training program. The consortium has given COMET $205,000 to carry out a needs assessment and write a plan for pilot weather training.

At the same time, in response to an icing-related commuter plane crash in Gary, Indiana, several years ago, NASA's aeronautics center has provided $170,000 over two years for COMET to develop training for commuter pilots on the dangers of icing. UCAR's Research Aviation Program (RAP), with a long-standing effort in icing research, will also be involved in this initiative.

COMET is preparing a major weather training proposal for NASA with several partners:

Timothy Spangler.

The NASA proposal would be for the design and development of a national aviation weather training program over a five-year period. In this training, says COMET director Timothy Spangler, "Our focus is twofold: helping pilots understand weather and--this is our real focus--improving their decision-making about weather." Besides pilots, "This program will encompass the entire cadre of professionals that work in aviation."

New instructional tool: The World Wide Web

If you're into learning about weather, remember this URL:

http://meted.ucar.edu. "This Web site is going to be the one-stop shopping place for education and training for weather forecasters," says Spangler. He has seen a COMET-program move to the World Wide Web coming for years, but the program couldn't act until most forecasters had Web access. Spangler estimates that at this point, some 80% of NWS forecasters do. Also, Web software capabilities have grown rapidly in the last two years, making the switch easier to accomplish.

The first module on the Web is "Mesoscale Convective Systems: Squall Lines and Bow Echoes," created by two subject-matter specialists--Morris Weisman (NCAR Mesoscale and Microscale Meteorology Division) and Ron Przybylinski (NWS)--along with COMET program staff, including Pat Parrish and Wendy Abshire. By mid-March, three of the module's four sections will be up, giving the Web site about 175 content pages.

Conceptual map from the Web-based module, designed by Heidi Lindenlaub (COMET). Background cloud photo by Ed Szoke (NOAA).

Until now, COMET has published its training modules on CD-ROM. To create the new module, Parrish says, "We had to learn all-new tools (HTML and JavaScript). We had certain limitations in terms of graphic size, animation size--things we wouldn't be too concerned about on the CD-ROM. We tried to reduce the number of large-scale animations, but we didn't want to sacrifice too much, so we tried some different strategies." These include making the animations optional and offering a series of stills for those with slower connections. Also, to circumvent all-too-familiar download delays, the Web site allows a user to preload the graphics before working through the module. While this process is going on, the user isn't tied to the Web browser.

On this first Web foray, says Parrish, "We didn't link to external sites from within the main body of instruction. Because of our frames-based navigation scheme, we were a little concerned about having people get confused about getting back to where they left off." On the other hand, "We aren't making too many compromises. We still have a pretty good level of interactivity--multiple-choice questions, fill in the blanks, short-answer questions." And even for a Web novice, the site is easy to negotiate, with the "navigational options," as Parrish calls them, always visible on a corner of the screen and many links available within the module.

The advantages of Web-based instruction are many. Development time is faster, because back-and-forth time between COMET's instructional designers and Web experts and the scientist writers and reviewers is faster and because mistakes can be corrected more easily. Second, the Web is platform independent, unlike the CDs, which could be used only on certain models of computers. Thus, potentially, more users will have access to the modules. Also, Web publishing is cheaper. COMET currently publishes three to five CDs a year at an annual cost of $30,000 to $50,000. For the Web, this annual amount is replaced by a one-time investment of about $50,000 for file servers.

The one disadvantage of the Web is that it's still too slow to handle video footage--important in teaching about moving weather phenomena. Spangler expects that technological advances will eliminate this problem in a few years. For now, "We will be publishing our Web site on CD every so often for the people who don't have fast access or can't get on the Web."

A new way of thinking: Probabilistic hydrometeorological forecasting

This 17-syllable name represents "a new way of organizing a forecaster's thought processes," says Spangler. "It's a radical change in how the forecaster presents the information he or she has in his head." The resulting predictions, called probabilistic quantitative precipitation forecasts (PQPFs), have proven very popular with their primary users: hydrologists.

An NWS forecaster may know a great deal more about an upcoming weather event than what gets into the official outlook. For example, let's say a forecaster is pretty sure that a weather system is unlikely to pass overhead--but if it does, there will probably be at least two inches of rain. If it does rain, the forecaster may feel confident that the precipitation won't start for another 12 hours and will be over within 6 hours after it starts. A hydrologist in charge of flood control measures could use all this information, but it can't be boiled down into standard forecast terms.

Considering this fact, Roman Krzysztofowicz (University of Virginia) created a forecasting method based on a set of probabilities and a set of time ranges. In the above case, the ranges might be as follows: 75% chance of no rain (system misses the station); 50% chance 0.1" rain (system almost misses the station); and 25% chance of 2" rain (system passes directly overhead). The PQPF would also break the forecast into four six-hour time periods, starting with the present, and indicate the percentage of the total amount of rain that the forecaster believes will fall during each time period. For our example, these percentages might be 0, 10%, 70%, and 20%.

Krzysztofowicz tested methods of producing PQPFs and similar river stage forecasts for five years and began producing pilot forecasts in 1996, using NWS data and models. (He describes his method and the test results in the February Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.) "The users really like it," says Spangler. Beginning next fall, the NWS is funding COMET to train forecasters in producing PQPFs.

COMET's foundation: Forecaster training

"We have accomplished much of our original mission," Spangler says. "Our peak training for the weather service was in 1996." The service's 120 science and operations officers (one at each major forecast station across the country) have virtually all received COMET training. Over the years, however, NWS has realized that its forecasters will continue to need outside scientific training as research evolves and priorities change. "I see a continuing strong interest in maintaining COMET as the science education program, but budget realities mean that that particular part of the program is unlikely to grow."

Having reached this milestone, Spangler can do a little retrospection. "We've delivered a lot of scientific knowledge. I'm very proud of the training we've done." There is no quantitative way to measure whether an improvement in a forecaster's skill should be attributed to COMET, but the program hears from many forecasters that their COMET training was put to use within weeks, resulting in more accurate weather reports.

Spangler will be presenting COMET modules (CD and Web-based) at 7:30 p.m. on 2 April at a meeting of the Denver-Boulder American Meteorological Society. UCAR Quarterly readers are invited to the meeting, which will be at the COMET Program classroom in Boulder. For further information about this presentation or the program in general, contact Spangler (303-497-8473 or tspang@ucar.edu).

Upgrading African forecaster training

In the last couple of years, the COMET program has branched out into a number of international initiatives (see UCAR Quarterly, Summer 1996). One of these, African Satellite Meteorological Education and Training (ASMET), has brought four African forecasters across the world to Boulder to create their own training module, tailored exclusively for the problems of tropical forecasting.

Kenyans James Kongoti and Joseph Kagenyi are from the Kenyan Meteorological Department's Institute for Meteorological Training and Research in Nairobi, a regional training center that serves forecasters from English-speaking countries in eastern and southern Africa. Koffigan Attitso (a native of Togo) and Emmanuel Kploguede (from Benin) work at EAMAC (in English, its name is the African School of Meteorology and Civil Aviation). EAMAC, a regional training center in Niamey, Niger, trains meteorologists from all the French-speaking countries south of the Sahara. Thus the two institutes reach scientists in virtually all of the African continent south of the Sahara.

The aim of ASMET "is to train African meteorologists in the use of satellite technology so that they can implement this information for forecasting skills," says Kongoti. "Since we are here, we are also trying to learn computer-aided learning to help train other weather scientists in Africa. COMET is offering those skills to us." ASMET is sponsored by several countries; sponsorship for the scientists' Boulder stay came from the German government. (Or, as Spangler puts it, "COMET is getting foreign aid.")

Forecasting in Africa and elsewhere in the tropics is a different ball game from the temperate-zone variety. Kagenyi explains, "In extratropical regions, the systems do come in systematically, but in our regions, they are quite difficult to predict." Kongoti adds, "Any time the wind crosses the Equator, it changes direction. And again, because of insolation from the tropics, if you give a forecast you've got to take into view diurnal effects. You may find that the effect of heating up on the ground is going to cause a lot of difference." Attitso summarizes African meteorology as "dynamic and chaotic." The intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ), where the trade winds meet near the Equator, is the home of this chaos.

Kagenyi points out, "With experience, in our offices we have managed to come up with a way of giving the forecast from a tropical point of view." The four scientists are drawing on this experience, and other skills, to create a training module on CD-ROM for their institutions. Titled "Integrating Satellite Imagery of the ITCZ over Africa into Analyses," the module teaches the use of Meteosat data in forecasting. The module is available in both English and French. It is the second ASMET module; the first, called "Satellite Meteorology in Africa," was written at COMET with input from the African meteorologists. The completed module will be sent to various national meteorological offices on the continent and used in the scientists' training centers.

Kagenyi closes with a request for his colleagues here: "It is very important that scientists in extratropical regions should also get an interest in understanding the weather in the tropics. We feel that if people could venture into working in the tropics, with the coordination between the people in the two regions, we could produce something that is worthwhile."

Left to right: Joseph Kagenyi, James Kongoti, Emmanuel Kploguede, and Koffigan Attitso.


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Edited by Carol Rasmussen, carolr@ucar.edu
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Last revised: Tue Apr 4 14:51:09 MDT 2000