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Why I'm proud to be a meteorologist

Why I'm proud to be a meteorologist

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BOSTON - Where do weather forecasts and warnings come from?

The simple answer is that, as meteorologists, we look at the current conditions, analyze the models, and use our knowledge and experience to interpret the data and communicate our forecast and critical warnings.

The better answer, though, is that every forecast or warning you receive - on the internet, TV, radio, or from your favorite app - is the result of more than a century of ongoing discovery, invention and collaboration by a dedicated community of thousands around the world.

The passionate, purposeful and persistent drive of this global weather community to continuously improve forecasts and warnings is what makes me most proud to be a meteorologist.

This week and this year is a particularly appropriate time to recognize the tremendous progress made in weather forecasting, its importance to society, and the weather community's commitment to achieving even greater success.

Gathered here in Boston this week are more than 5,000 members of the weather community, a global cross-section of the public, private and academic sectors that convenes every January at the American Meteorological Society (AMS) Annual Meeting, usually in a warm locale like Phoenix, Austin or New Orleans. Instead this year's event is being held in chilly Boston, hometown of the AMS, in celebration of the society's 100th anniversary.

Meanwhile this year also marks the 150th anniversary of the National Weather Service and the 50th anniversary of its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the cornerstone of U.S. weather forecasting.

It is in part through conferences like the one here in Boston this week - through research presented, formal meetings and informal conversations - that your daily weather forecast has steadily improved over many decades. In fact, while Mother Nature may still humble us from time to time, the overall improvement in weather forecasting is absolutely stunning.

One of the most dramatic examples of this improvement starts way back in 1900, when a Category 4 hurricane struck Galveston, Texas, with virtually no advanced warning, killing more than 8,000 people to become the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history. Today, forecasters routinely identify areas at risk for hurricane landfall several days in advance, with an average 24-hour track forecast error of less than 60 miles, giving communities time to prepare and saving countless lives.

More recently, from the 1970s to 1990s, an estimated 650 people died in 20 U.S. commercial airline crashes ultimately blamed on microbursts. These intensely powerful winds - blowing downward from a thunderstorm cloud, and then spreading outward near the ground - had not yet been discovered when the crashes first started, and could not be detected by conventional radar. In a remarkable reversal, though, it's been more than 25 years since the last U.S. airliner crashed due to a microburst, thanks to ground-breaking research led by Testuya Fujita (who also created the Fujita tornado scale), pilot training to avoid and escape microbursts, and installation of Doppler radar warning systems.

As for tornadoes, advances in science and technology have increased the average warning time from 3 minutes to 14 minutes over the last 40 years, providing people significantly more time to seek sturdy shelter and no doubt preventing numerous deaths and injuries.

In fact, despite missed forecasts from time to time and plenty of room for improvement, people and businesses rely on increasingly accurate and more detailed forecasts made farther in advance than ever before. Weather forecasts help emergency managers evacuate coastal areas ahead of a hurricane, farmers manage and protect their crops, local officials prepare for an approaching winter storm, and families plan weekend activities around potential rain, among so many other uses.

How the weather community has made such incredible progress in forecasting is a remarkable story, recently chronicled in detail by author and journalist Andrew Blum in a book titled "The Weather Machine." In short, it is the result of a "global infrastructure of observation and prediction ... conceived and constantly improved upon by a group of people few know exist," Blum writes. "Notably, it has not been the achievement of a single government agency or corporation but an international construction, a carefully conceived and continuously running system of systems."

Indeed, the triumph that is the modern-day weather forecast is truly a massive undertaking, with contributions from every corner of the weather community. These are career civil servants, political appointees, private-sector professionals, and academic and nonprofit researchers.

These are scientists who strive to understand the inner workings of our atmosphere and oceans. These are engineers who build the satellites, sensors and ground systems that collect data from all across our planet. These are computer scientists who code the models that turn the data into forecasts. These are meteorologists who interpret the models and communicate the forecast. And these are social scientists who research and develop ways to more effectively communicate forecasts and warnings.

Like any community there are differing priorities among us and healthy competition. Yet there is one common goal that sets our collective compass-improving forecasts and warnings to save lives, reduce injuries, and help people make better decisions.

In this milestone year for the weather community, I'm proud to be a member of this group that has cooperated and collaborated for more than 100 years and counting, to develop a global system for observing the planet and predicting the weather with ever-increasing accuracy, detail and lead time. It is an incredible feat we can all be proud of, even as we focus on the challenge of further improving forecasts and warnings in the years and decades to come.

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Stillman is a lead meteorologist for The Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang.

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