Dr. Louis Uccellini: ‘Building a Weather Ready Nation’

Building a Weather Ready Nation

Dr. Louis Uccellini, Director, National Weather Service Headquarters, Silver Spring, Maryland

The United States is home to the planet’s most extreme weather–and these extreme weather events are on the increase. Their numbers have expanded exponentially since 1980.

The growth in severe weather occurrence has been far from linear. It’s occurred in fits and starts—some years are have proven exceptionally active–others much less so.

Last year’s an example.  2013 had opened incredibly quiet in terms of severe weather—but that wasn’t to last. November hit hard. The loss of life and heart-wrenching scenes of devastation in Washington, IL and elsewhere across the Midwest underscored the speed with which weather can turn on us.

It used to be weather disasters in this country and around the world, hit without warning. This country’s most deadly natural disaster–the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900–swept off bathtub warm September Gulf of Mexico waters killing at least 6,000. Accounts have Galveston meteorologist Issac Kline traveling the beaches warning of the potential for an impending storm are legendary. But the fact is, there was no organized advance warning.  Forecasters at the time lacked the tools available today to monitor the weather–no satellites to peer over the poorly observed expanses of ocean and computer models–even the simple ones which emerged in the 1950s and would have performed poorly in handling a hurricane–were a half century away.

It had been known what was identified as a “tropical storm” had crossed Cuba.  But forecasters presumed it was northbound, traveling the opens waters of the Atlantic. By the time strengthening northeast winds and a building surf announced the storm’s arrival on the vulnerable Texas coastline– with elevations no higher than 8 ft. above sea level—-there was no escape.

The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 was hardly the lone example of an unpredicted meteorological catastrophe. A January 1888 Blizzard, which has been called the School Children’s Blizzard because 235 of its victims included children trapped in one room schoolhouses, struck the U.S. Plains on what had started out as a warm day. It was to drop as much as 50″ of snow as temps plunged.

Joining us Saturday, April 5 at our 34th Annual Fermilab Tornado and Severe Storms Seminar is a scientist who has devoted a career to preventing such deadly weather events from striking with so little warning. Dr. Louis Uccellini heads the National Weather Service–an agency charged with the daunting mission of monitoring this country’s weather identifying life-threatening extreme weather events before they hit.

Louis is no stranger to our Fermilab seminar audiences if you’ve joined us in years past.

He’s remarkable scientist with a storied career which has put him on the front lines and, indeed, in a position as architect and director of some of operational meteorology’s most noteworthy advances. I first met Louis at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in the 1970s. On the 14th floor of the Space Science and Engineering Building on campus, birthplace of satellite meteorology under direction of Dr. Verner Suomi, undergrads such as myself would gather amid clacking teletypes and map-lined walls and marvel at the observations of graduate students like Louis, who was working on his doctorate. Louis, always the teacher, took the time and patience to counsel the wide-eyed, inexperienced novices in his midst, on the ways of the atmosphere.  I marvel thinking back on the things I learned on during those map room gatherings from Louis!

His career was to take off after leaving UW-Madison on the shores of Lake Mendota. Upon completion of his studies, where he earned bachelor, masters and PhD degrees, Louis, who has authored or co-authored 60 scientific papers on subjects as varied as jet stream structure to gravity waves and the genesis of severe thunderstorms and winter storms, joined NASA as Section Head of the agency’s Mesoscale Analysis and Modeling Section of that agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center’s Laboratory for the Atmospheres, a position he held through 1989. While there, he authored a seminal paper on the weather’s involvement with the Space Shuttle Challenger.

He moved to the National Weather Service in 1989 as Chief of the Meteorological Operations Division until 1994 when he was named Director of the National Weather Service’s Office of Meteorology. It was from that position he became Director of the Weather Service’s National Centers for Environmental Prediction. He served there for 13 years and directed the operation of nine National Weather Service Centers—among them, the National Hurricane Center, Storm Prediction Center, Hydrological Prediction Center, Climate Prediction Center, Environmental Modeling Center, Aviation Forecast Center, Space Weather Center and Ocean Prediction Center. He served as American Meteorological Society President in 2012 and ascended to the top position at the National Weather Service last year.

Louis makes no secret of the fact he considers the computer modeling of the atmosphere you hear so much about as one of the greatest scientific advances of the 20th century. The facts bear him out. The reduction in loss of life as a result of forecast improvements aided by ever more sophisticated simulations of the atmosphere produced by these models, has been impressive. Weather forecasts continue to improve at longer time ranges. Two week predictions from this past winter are examples. But, the fact is, too many continue to perish in weather disasters for which warnings are being issued in an accurately and in a timely manner.  Changing this—-reducing the loss of life in catastrophic weather events– has become one of Louis’ missions as Director of the National Weather Service.

More and more forecasts are identifying the potential for serious weather trouble as much as four to 8 days ahead. Examples of weather events accurately predicted but still deadly and disruptive, include Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the Tuscaloosa, Alabama and Joplin, Missouri tornado outbreak, even our Ground Hog’s Day Blizzard of February, 2011.

A major program to produce what Louis and his colleagues at NOAA refer to as a “Weather Ready Nation” is underway.  This effort is unites the efforts of talented human forecasters from the Weather Service’s 122 local forecast offices across the U.S. and its territories with the modelers who work to improve supercomputer projections, social scientists, who probe how forecasts are being interpreted by those who receive and use them,  and the conventional and new communication technologies with which we’re all familiar—cell phone and mobile platforms among them, which get warnings and advisories out to more people more quickly–with a single, important goal in mind: to cut injury and the loss of life.

Last November’s Super Typhoon Haiyan decimated portions of the Philippines a little over a week before a swarm of tornadoes half a world away carved paths across Illinois and the Midwest.  Haiyan swept ashore November 8th with near 200 mph winds. Their almost unimaginable fury–the equivalent of an EF3 tornado which, rather than passing in minutes, roared on for hours on end, at the same time pushing an immense, terrifying dome of water–a catastrophic “storm surge”– onto the shoreline with the force of a watery bulldozer. More than 6,000 perished on the Philippines in that single storm, believed to have been the strongest land falling tropical cyclone to reach a coastline anywhere in the world. Like Katrina and Sandy before it in this country–Super Typhoon Haiyan’s onslaught brought total devastation.

Storms of that ferocity aren’t impossible here. Ongoing hurricane model improvements have been underway for year–part of a 10 year program within the National Weather Service, made possible by the exponential increase in computational speed which is coming online. This is yety another component of the National Weather Service’s Weather Ready effort about which Dr. Uccellini will talk.

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