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Satellite data could revolutionize weather forecasts

Weather forecasts are on the brink of a significant improvement, thanks to research from Penn State University.

In 2020, the Midwest Derecho, a severe thunderstorm event, caused widespread damage across the Midwest. Researchers at Penn State have developed a technique that merges satellite data with weather forecast models. This innovation significantly sharpens the accuracy of predictions for storm intensity and wind locations.

The study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, highlights how using microwave data from satellites can enhance weather forecasts. While traditional models depend on ground-based radar, the new technique utilizes satellite data to improve predictions in under-covered areas. This could revolutionize forecasting in regions with limited radar access.

Expanding the horizon

Yunji Zhang, a meteorology professor at Penn State and the study’s lead author, emphasized the potential impact of the research.

“The computer model is able to produce a series of forecasts that consistently emphasize the most powerful storms and strongest wind damage at where it happened,” Zhang explained. “If we have this kind of information in real time, before the events occur, forecasters might be able to pinpoint where the strongest damage is going to happen.”

Bridging the gap: Satellite data to the rescue

The importance of this technique extends beyond improving forecasts. It also represents a significant advance in our ability to predict severe weather in underserved regions.

“In regions where there are no surface observations, or basically no radar, we show that this combination of satellite observations can generate a decent forecast of severe weather events,” said Zhang. This method could be applied worldwide, notably in regions vulnerable to climate change and without weather monitoring infrastructure.

The future is now: A vision for global weather forecasting

The research builds on a previous study from Penn State, which used satellite infrared data to study water vapor and clouds. The innovative use of microwave sensors captures the full atmospheric column, unveiling crucial details of storm dynamics beneath the clouds. This is key for accurately predicting storm behavior.

By integrating infrared and microwave sensor data, the team enhanced wind forecast precision for the derecho event. This integration offers a more comprehensive view of storms, leading to more accurate predictions and timely alerts.

Zhang’s team sees potential for applying this method globally, notably in West Africa, where severe weather and global warming’s impacts are profound.

“We know that there have been several times in the past several years in West Africa where very strong torrential rainfall events have brought on a lot of precipitation to those countries,” noted Zhang. Providing improved forecasts for such regions could have a significant impact, helping to mitigate the effects of severe weather and climate change on vulnerable communities.

Weathering the storm: The satellite revolution

The integration of satellite data into weather forecasting models represents a significant step forward in our ability to predict and respond to severe weather events.

With continued research and development, this technique has the potential to enhance weather prediction capabilities worldwide, offering hope and potentially life-saving information to regions previously left in the dark.

Additional advancements in weather forecasts 

Advancements in weather forecasting have been significantly shaped by the integration of AI and machine learning (ML), alongside major upgrades in supercomputing infrastructure. Here’s a summary of recent developments:

AI and machine learning  

AI innovations are revolutionizing weather forecasting with models like NVIDIA’s FourCastNet, Microsoft’s ClimaX, and Huawei’s Pangu-Weather. 

FourCastNet utilizes a Fourier-based neural network to deliver fast and extensive ensemble forecasts, although it sometimes struggles with predictions that adhere strictly to physical laws. 

ClimaX, using Vision Transformers, excels in handling diverse datasets and downscaling for local forecasts. Pangu-Weather, notable for its 3D Earth Specific Transformer architecture, offers rapid and intricate atmospheric predictions, though with high computational demands​​.

Supercomputing enhancements

NOAA’s implementation of twin supercomputers, Dogwood and Cactus, marks a significant upgrade in the computational resources available for weather and climate prediction. 

Operating at 12.1 petaflops, these supercomputers are three times faster than their predecessors, enabling more detailed and advanced forecasting models, such as higher-resolution simulations and better model physics for cloud and precipitation formation. 

Upgrades also pave the way for the new Hurricane Analysis and Forecast System (HAFS), aimed at improving hurricane predictions​​.


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