Ask the Weather Guys: Like it or not, numerical technique vastly improved forecasting

Pretty good forecast last week, wasn’t it?

Though last week’s persistent cloudiness and intermittent rain was almost surely met with derision by all, it is hard to imagine that many people were surprised by it, as the forecasts very accurately painted the gloomy picture several days in advance.

This advance warning was provided by the National Weather Service through the triumph of numerical weather prediction (NWP). Tuesday May 6th is the 59th anniversary of the issuance of the first NWP forecast in world history.

That forecast was issued in 1955 by the Joint Numerical Weather Prediction Unit headed by Jule Charney, a theoretical meteorologist from MIT, and John von Neumann, a computer scientist from Princeton. It was a dismal failure. In fact, a number of noted atmospheric scientists who had, to that point, offered only polite support for the development of NWP, were quick to use this initial failure as proof of the intractable nature of the challenge of numerically forecasting the weather.

The skeptics were on the wrong side of an amazing history. By 1965, the accuracy of a one-day forecast was substantially improved.

Today, we enjoy the fruits of the persistence of the pioneers who never wavered in their confidence that NWP was a worthy endeavor.

Last week’s persistent clouds and rain, forecast several days in advance, are just the latest example of the remarkable success of NWP. It may not be an exaggeration to claim that NWP is among the most underrated scientific advancements of the second half of the 20th century.

Category: Meteorology

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