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Say Hello to RAP's New Forecasting Talent: The Auto-Nowcaster

It gets none of the benefits regular staff do, but one of the newest forecasters in the Research Application Program will soon be delivering its own benefits to the aviation world. It's a machine--actually, a collection of software that spots incipient thunderstorms, tracks and predicts their development, and relays the information to users.

The automated thunderstorm nowcaster, or Auto-nowcaster, is the product of several years of work by a team of RAP meteorologists and software engineers on how storms are generated and maintained. Supported by Federal Aviation Administration funding, the nowcaster was unveiled at the American Meteorological Society's annual meeting several weeks ago. Later this year, it will undergo its first real-world testing in Memphis, Tennessee, accompanied by a human nowcaster from RAP to monitor its performance.

Sandra Henry and RAP's new Auto-nowcaster. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)
"Research on thunderstorm evolution has been done for a long time, but it's only been in the past few years that we've tried to automate these rules," says Sandra Henry, coordinator of the nowcaster project. "The reason why it's such a challenge is that there are so many algorithms that make up the system." The Auto-nowcaster is a hybrid of several routines written by various RAP researchers to tackle different aspects of the thunderstorm-development problem. Each has had its role in research, but until now, few have made it into the operational realm.

Trying to follow and predict thunderstorms is a taxing affair for even the best forecasters. A single cumulus cloud can blossom into a thunderstorm in 10 to 20 minutes. Standard operational computer models have proven effective in the 12- to 48-hour time frame, but they are of little use in the 0- to 60-minute time frame. According to a recent document on the Auto-nowcaster, "Significant benefit can be derived from automating the [thunderstorm prediction] process, because making forecasts for this short a time period is very labor-intensive and requires considerable expertise by local forecasters."

Jim Wilson is project leader for the Auto-nowcaster. He, along with Cindy Mueller and Wendy Schreiber-Abshire, pioneered the art of storm-initiation forecasts during the middle and late 1980s by studying the evolution of gust fronts and other convergence lines depicted on Doppler radar. Storms can develop quickly at points where the boundaries (seen as thin lines on Doppler displays) intersect or collide, pushing air upward.

Jim and Cindy devised rules by which forecasters can anticipate the development of storms by up to 60 minutes. Some of this work was disseminated to the forecasting community beginning in 1991 through an interactive module produced by the Cooperative Program for Operational Meteorology, Education and Training (COMET). Says Jim, "It is quite common now for National Weather Service forecasters who have been through the COMET training to issue very short period thunderstorm forecasts to the public based on tracking convergence lines on NEXRAD [Next Generation Weather Radar]."

"Jim is the brains behind a lot of this research," says Sandra. "He and Cindy did a lot of the initial work on devising the basic rules. I've stepped in to try to get these rules automated." Sandra is working with RAP programmers and engineers Laura Stoltz, Mike Dixon, Laurie Carson, Frank Hage, and Gary Blackburn in deciding how the various components should interact. These include:

The newest part of the Auto-nowcaster is the automated use of satellite data to identify cumulus clouds in their various stages of development. Rita Roberts, the director of this effort, is using a routine imported from the Naval Research Laboratory. "NRL developed it to distinguish clouds over the ocean," such as marine stratocumulus decks, explains Rita. "It now needs to be trained to classify cumulus types over land." Field work led by MMM's Charlie Knight has found that sensitive Doppler radars can map even the smallest cumulus clouds. Thus, Doppler radar and NRL cloud classifications will be combined to pinpoint tiny cumulus that are likely to become storms.

In its first real-time testing last summer at RAP, the Auto-nowcaster fulfilled Sandra's expectations. "Our objective was to have it running completely on its own. We had everything in place. We still need to optimize the forecast itself, but at times it performed very well." Next comes the first real-world test, scheduled to start in May at the FAA's Integrated Terminal Weather Support site near Memphis. Meteorologists from Lincoln Labs, the National Severe Storms Laboratory, and NCAR will collaborate over the summer to examine the Auto-nowcaster's output.

"It has been a major team effort to get the Auto-nowcaster ready for field testing," says Jim, "but we are now very anxious to get exposure and feedback from this summer's test in Memphis. We hope to soon get it in front of FAA controllers and NWS operational forecasters. We expect the Auto-nowcaster will be issuing aviation weather advisories on its own in the near future." --BH


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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
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