Aug. 17, 2000 BOULDER--Summer thunderstorms are notorious for triggering flight schedule mayhem. In the midst of this season's share of delays and cancellations, a new forecast tool is quietly providing the airlines their best shot at spotting thunderstorm hazards across the nation.
Developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) with funding from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the National Convective Weather Forecast has been whipping out storm updates every five minutes over the Internet since June 1, and the major airlines are tuning in.
"We check the updated forecast throughout the day. It's invaluable as we determine routings and select altitudes for our aircraft," says Steve Caisse, flight superintendent for Delta Air Lines and past president of the Airline Dispatchers Federation. "It gives dispatchers a better picture of where the thunderstorms will be over the next several hours, which is a critical element in the safe and efficient execution of our flight schedule."
Among the other major airlines using the National Convective Weather Forecast are American, Northwest, Southwest, and TWA.
An official National Weather Service guidance product, the on-line "nowcast" operates out of the NWS Aviation Weather Center (AWC) in Kansas City, Missouri. Its one-hour national thunderstorm forecast automatically updates every five minutes to help commercial airlines, the FAA, and general aviation keep planes safe and on time.
"We're working to provide the most accurate, current, and useful thunderstorm information available within today's technology," says NCAR project scientist Cynthia Mueller. Mueller, along with colleagues, developed the system for the FAA over the past year from her NCAR office in Boulder, Colorado. It is the most recent outcome of 15 years of NCAR research and development aimed at providing thunderstorm forecasts for the aviation community.
The nowcast is used together with another recently developed guidance tool, the Collaborative Collective Forecast Product, now in its second year of operation at the AWC. The collaborative forecast provides airline meteorologists with a best first guess at thunderstorm activity over the next two to six hours. Every few hours the AWC meteorologists, FAA flow control managers, and airline meteorologists adjust this initial forecast during a conference call and then plan accordingly.
But thunderstorms are not very predictable six hours ahead. For strategic decisions over the next hour, dispatchers need an accurate look at the current situation. That's where the NCAR nowcast comes in, with its frequently updated national map of where the thunderstorms are now and where they're forecast to be in one hour.
According to the FAA, about 69% of air traffic control delays during 1999 were due to weather.
The FAA's Aviation Weather Research Program sponsored NCAR's development of the National Convective Weather Forecast. Some research assistance was provided by the MIT Lincoln Laboratories, NWS Aviation Weather Center, and the National Severe Storms Laboratory (part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).
NCAR's primary sponsor is the National Science Foundation. NCAR is managed by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a consortium of more than 60 universities offering Ph.D.s in atmospheric and related sciences.
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