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Winter 1999

Decade two for COMET: New clients, new Web tools

By Bob Henson

Tim Spangler (second from left) is in this picture of COMET's original staff. First director Bill Bonner is on the right in the back row.

Spangler and five other original staff members can be seen in the current COMET staff photo.

Knowledge from the research world has shaped U.S. weather forecasting in the 1990s as never before. In large part, that's due to UCAR's Cooperative Program for Operational Meteorology, Education and Training, which is now celebrating its tenth anniversary. The COMET Program's original goal was to further the modernization of the National Weather Service (NWS) by bringing its forecasters in touch with new findings and tools from both academia and the laboratory.

COMET fulfilled its mission--so well, in fact, that it's being called on for an ever-wider range of education tasks. Support now comes from eight agencies in addition to the NWS, and COMET products are being used in at least 20 nations. With COMET's help, a number of university scientists are teaming with nearby NWS offices to study local weather problems, whose solutions sometimes have national implications (see sidebar).

The NWS remains a key client for the COMET Program, along with the Air Force Weather Agency and the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command, according to director Tim Spangler, who's led the program since 1992. Although Spangler says there was some initial uncertainty in both the operational and research communities on whether or not COMET would fly, this was dispelled in short order. Now, he says, "COMET is a real success story."

COMET's multimedia classroom has been a meteorological crossroads for the past decade. Hundreds of key personnel from NWS offices have visited Boulder for stints of one to several weeks in the classroom, learning how to interpret data from new technology arriving in their offices. The residence courses continue, although they are now shifting toward more finely focused topics such as quantitative precipitation forecasting.

From its early days, COMET produced training modules on laser disc and CD-ROM for forecasters to use at their home sites. More recently, growth in Internet bandwidth has allowed COMET to build Web-based training modules with sophisticated graphics. The COMET Meted site is managed in tandem with two NOAA training centers. Launched in 1997, the site includes more than 2,000 Web pages of instruction and receives some 200,000 hits a month. Its module topics range from "How to Develop a Severe Weather Climatology" to "The Use and Misuse of Convective Symmetric Instability." In the next two years, COMET will work with UCAR's Program for the Advancement of Geoscience Education (PAGE) to make even more of its vast stock of imagery available on the Web in a new digital library (see the Fall 1999 issue of the UCAR Quarterly.

Other agencies are taking advantage of COMET's unique skills. The program has collaborated with the Federal Emergency Management Agency since 1998 on multimedia tools to train emergency managers. Because the occupation is highly mobile, emergency managers regularly arrive at a new home and find themselves facing unfamiliar meteorological threats. Moreover, since most emergency managers are not meteorologists, they often can use help in interpreting forecasts.

Spangler sees more of such collaborations in COMET's future. He'd like to engage other sectors of society so that forecasts can be created and used more wisely. Aviation meteorology is a potential growth area in which COMET has done some preliminary work. Pilots now rely on a mix of public and private weather information to fulfill their needs (although, Spangler notes, "There's a lot of potential liability in aviation forecasting that the federal government will continue to absorb.") Agriculture is another public-private arena that Spangler thinks could benefit from improved forecast interpretation, such as more detail on what can be expected in a given locale during El Niño and La Niña.

To tackle its growing list of demands, COMET employs an unusual mix of meteorologists, graphic artists, and instructional design experts. For a group of more than 40 people, its staff is remarkably close knit, says Spangler. Six of the original ten employees from 1990 are still on board. "We have so many people who are so good at what they do. I am just in awe of their abilities." Spangler also credits the NWS with allowing the program to grow and to branch in new directions, and NCAR for being "the rock that we could always lean on for assistance and facilities. Without its support, the program could have foundered."

An anniversary poster designed by COMET's Heidi Godsil will be available at COMET's booth at the 80th annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society in January at Long Beach, California, and at COMET headquarters in Boulder.

Bridging the ivory tower and the front line

Several years back, a group of systems engineering majors at the University of Virginia got an unusual assignment for their senior project. Working with the Pittsburgh office of the National Weather Service and the Ohio River Forecast Center in Cincinnati, the students came up with a scheme for quantifying the uncertainty in predictions of rainfall and snowfall amounts and river heights. Not only did the fruit of their labor help the students complete their degrees, it could help improve the weather forecasts used by millions of Americans. NWS headquarters is now considering the algorithms as it develops a plan for routine probabilistic forecasting of precipitation amounts nationwide.

It's the job of the COMET Outreach Program to see that a modest bit of funding allows collaborations like these to flourish. Over the past decade, the program has provided funds for over 150 joint projects involving the NWS and more than 60 universities. There are two kinds of Outreach Program grants:

  • NWS Cooperative Projects bring together a university department and one or more NWS offices (not necessarily from the same region) for a series of studies or an in-depth analysis of a single forecast problem. These last from one to three years and are funded through a yearly cycle, with applications submitted by January and awards made in March. The awards average about $30,000, and about 40% of proposals are accepted.

  • One-year Partners Projects, which average around $7,000 each, typically involve one university faculty member and one NWS forecaster on a case study or analysis that leads to a better understanding of local meteorology or a new forecast technique. Proposals for Partners Projects are accepted throughout the year, and most proposals are funded.

"It used to be that there were no other sources of funding for applied research in atmospheric science," says Vickie Johnson, manager of the COMET Outreach Program. "Now, there's the U.S. Weather Research Program, and the NWS has just started a new program that funds larger projects." However, she notes, the Outreach Program is tailored for "a different kind of need. These are shorter-term projects that interest the academics, students, and forecasters alike."

As one might expect, most of COMET's cooperative projects focus on the mesoscale. For instance, a team from Saint Louis University (SLU) has worked with NWS offices in their hometown as well as Louisville and Paducah, Kentucky, to better understand storm systems across the mid-Mississippi and Ohio Valleys. Fifty-year climatologies of heavy rainfall and snowfall were prepared for the mid-Mississippi Valley. Meanwhile, forecasters increased their skill at analyzing destructive storms, such as squall lines packing tornadoes or high winds, on radar.

The studies "have had a tremendous positive effect on our office," says Ted Funk, science and operations officer at NWS-Louisville. "It's really helped our understanding and our ability to detect features associated with severe weather." With data provided by SLU through UCAR's Unidata program, Funk is now extending the heavy-snow climatology eastward into the Ohio Valley. At SLU, professor of meteorology James Moore says the cooperation has "opened our eyes to a lot of operational forecast problems to see what applied research we can do that will have an immediate impact. I see the forecasters as the people in the trenches. We need to see how we can help them and how they can help us better understand forecast problems." Moore notes that "a lot of the NWS people do their COMET work on extra time--they do it at home or through extra hours at work. People put in a tremendous amount of effort on the side."

Students involved in the cooperative projects "like the fact that their work is going to be used by somebody," says Johnson. Forecasters can get out of the box of tomorrow's forecast and "think more about the science of what they're doing, and the academic partners learn a great deal about forecasting under the real-world constraints that forecasters have to face every day. Both partners are great resources for each other."

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Edited by Carol Rasmussen, carolr@ucar.edu
Prepared for the Web by Jacque Marshall
Last revised: Tue Apr 4 15:11:41 MDT 2000