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August 1999

Tornadic testimony: Mr. Weisman goes to Washington


Pushing the warning envelope
OGA's briefings on the Hill

Morris Weisman. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

Two trips to the nation's capital weren't on Morris Weisman's calendar for this spring--that is, until Oklahoma and Kansas were hit by killer tornadoes on 3 May. The disastrous twisters launched a chain reaction of events that brought the MMM scientist to Capitol Hill for a congressional briefing on 26 May. The briefing was followed on 16 June by formal testimony before a joint meeting of the subcommittees of the House Science Committee dealing with energy and environment and with basic research.

Although the journeys were unexpected and the preparations hectic, Morris considers it all worthwhile. "I went there thinking 'Why do we need to do this?', and I came back really impressed. It's invaluable to understand where the questions and the issues are coming from. . . . You really feel like you're doing something of value."

The logistics for both trips were arranged largely by UCAR's Office of Government Affairs. OGA, headed by Cindy Schmidt, helps keep the institution in touch with developments in Washington that affect atmospheric research in general and our funding in particular. The office also brings NCAR and UOP expertise to the Hill through panels held for congressional staffers. Topics are chosen based on high-profile news events and on legislation making its way through the House and Senate. Through the work of Laura Curtis and Gloria Kelly, OGA has organized nine panels since 1997 (see sidebar).

Oklahoma's devastating tornado outbreak brought to light the progress made in warnings and awareness while raising questions about what more can be done to reduce deaths and damage. After OGA decided to do a Hill briefing in late May, the office tapped Morris along with Harold Brooks (National Severe Storms Laboratory) and the University of Oklahoma's Kelvin Droegemeier and John Snow. The panel was hosted by J.C. Watts (R-Okla.). Colorado representative Mark Udall was on hand as well, "which was nice," says Morris.

"A couple of days later," he adds, "we got word from Steve Eule [staff director, subcommittee on basic research] that he wanted to bring this to the House." That gave Morris only a few days to prepare not only a brief oral presentation but more formal (and lengthy) written testimony that would go into the Congressional Record.

"It was all very rushed," he says. Nevertheless, "I took it upon myself to get peer review [from MMM's Rit Carbone, Bob Gall, and Joe Klemp]. There's no requirement--you're giving testimony as an individual--but I felt it was my obligation to get input." For his panel appearance as well as his testimony, Morris called on the help of COMET's Wendy Abshire, Will Piper, and Jason Romero: "They helped me put together a high-tech presentation that got the points across effectively."

Morris received guidance on the testimony process from Mark Burnham of Lewis-Burke Associates, a D.C. firm retained by UCAR for legislative consultation. Burnham was "wonderful in terms of support," says Morris.

After Morris and colleagues Howie Bluestein (University of Oklahoma), Dennis McCarthy (NWS Norman), and Roger Wakimoto (University of California, Los Angeles) gave their oral statements at the hearing, they spent roughly an hour answering questions from members of the science committee. A few queries came from left field--such as whether tornadoes could be modified by adding chemicals--but on the whole Morris found the inquiry thoughtful and constructive. "They wanted to hear about how basic research is producing success and about how we're making progress in terms of day-to-day weather--and how we could go further."

Morris joins a small group of UCAR and NCAR scientists who have made the trek to Washington to deliver testimony. During the Bush administration, for example, Kevin Trenberth (CGD) appeared before then-senator Al Gore to address water vapor and climate change. Kevin has also made frequent trips to the Hill for less formal talks and panels.

This year, on 24 February, UCAR president Rick Anthes appeared before the energy and environment subcommittee to address NWS modernization. "The questions were friendly and fairly routine," says Rick. Vern Ehlers (R-Mich.) asked whether the nation's atmospheric scientists were getting the computer power they needed. "I told him that we were pretty much limited to U.S. computers and that there were computers made by other countries that were more suitable for numerical weather prediction." However, Rick noted in his response, the National Centers for Environmental Prediction were forging ahead with a new set of IBM machines. A similar move is now in the works at NCAR: watch for details in the next issue of Staff Notes Monthly.

In his own testimony, Morris raised the possibility of three- to six-hour predictions of the locations of supercell storms that could produce twisters. However, in order to generate such outlooks, more number-crunching power is essential, he added. (See excerpt.)

Morris and his colleagues also put in a good word for NOAA's experimental network of wind profilers, which are scattered across the nation's heartland. These sensors were the only source of hourly data on strong upper-level winds that were spreading across the plains just before the Oklahoma outbreak. Despite these and other successes, the network is a perennial candidate for the fiscal chopping block. "You seldom get an opportunity to push for systems like the profiler network," says Morris.

"Maybe it shouldn't take an event like these tornadoes to get the attention [of people in Washington], but you do have to take advantage of the opportunity." •BH

This shatterd billboard is on I-240, one of three interstate highways in Oklahoma City struck by the 3 May 1999 tornadoes. (Photo by Bob Henson.)

Pushing the warning envelope

Below is an excerpt from Morris Weisman's testimony before the U.S. House Subcommittees on Energy and Environment and Basic Research on 16 June. The complete transcript is available on the Web site of the U.S. House of Representatives . Other testimony from this hearing can be reviewed by scrolling to "Tornadoes: Understanding, Modeling, and Forecasting Supercell Storms" at Committee Hearings - 106th Congress.

Our knowledge of the environments that can produce severe weather outbreaks, and the use of the modernized observing systems, allowed for an almost unprecedented lead time (up to 60 minutes in some cases) for the public to prepare for the 3 May event. The timing and location of development of the Oklahoma City storm, about 1.5 hours upstream of the city, was quite fortuitous, permitting a longer lead time for warnings than is usually possible. The ultimate question, though, is how far can we extend such lead times? Is three hours possible? Six hours? A day?

The research models that can help answer this very question are just coming on line, and are already offering hope that significant advances can still be made. An example is the experimental ARPS (Advanced Regional Prediction System) model, produced by the Center for Analysis and Prediction of Storms at the University of Oklahoma. A two-hour forecast, using WSR-88D data and profiler data to initiate and update the atmospheric conditions, was able to identify the Oklahoma City region, and much of north-central Oklahoma, as potentially in the path of developing storms. The current NWS, coarser-resolution, 12-hour forecast, however, produced only a broad region of precipitation, mostly over northern Texas.

Producing the above forecast in real time required the use of a 256-node Origin 2000 computer (the largest such machine available), which ran at about 12 gigaflops of sustained performance. In comparison, current [NCEP] and NCAR computers run at about 5 to 6 gigaflops. In order to provide uniformity of service nationwide, it will require more than 100 times the computer power currently available.

OGA's briefings on the Hill

Speakers are from NCAR unless otherwise noted.

17 July 1997
"Disasters, Death, and Destruction Related to U.S. Weather: What are the Facts?"
--Roger Pielke, Jr.

17 September 1997
"Extreme Weather and the Insurance Industry"
--Roger Pielke, Jr.; Frank Nutter (Reinsurance Association of America); Stanley Changnon (Changnon Climatologists), Bob Sheets (consultant, former director of the National Hurricane Center)

20 October 1997
"Climate Change--What the Models Tell Us"
--Warren Washington, Kevin Trenberth

26 February 1998
"From Montreal to Kyoto: How Can International Protocols
Protect the Atmosphere and Climate?"
--William Moomaw (Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University), Robert Stavins (John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University)

10 February 1999
"Coastal Disasters: America's Risk and America's Choices"
--Roger Pielke, Jr.; Betty Hearn Morrow (International Hurricane Center and Florida International University); John Snow (University of Oklahoma)

11 March 1999
"How Aerosols and Satellites Affect and Monitor Climate Change"
--Glenn Shaw (University of Alaska), Otis Brown (University of Miami)
"Tools of the Trade: New Technologies Improve Climate and Weather Observations"
--Dave Carlson

26 May 1999
"The May 3 Tornadoes: What We Know, What We Learned, and What the Future Holds"
--Kelvin Droegemeier and John Snow (University of Oklahoma), Harold Brooks (National Severe Storms Laboratory), Morris Weisman

9 June 1999
"Floodplain Management: Options in the U.S."
--Roger Pielke, Jr.; Mary Fran Myers (University of Colorado); Harry Lins (U.S. Geological Survey)


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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
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