Staying Ahead Of The Storm
Powerful new AWIPS II system brings better weather monitoring, prediction, warnings
When Mother Nature lashes out, meteorologists – armed with cutting-edge forecasting and monitoring tools – are the first line of defense against loss of life and property.
This year, they’ve had their hands full. Stories and images of flooding, large hail, wildfires and tornadoes have dominated headlines and social media. The mere mention of snow earns piercing glares from New Englanders. And for those who lost property or loved ones, severe weather has been much more than an inconvenience.
A new Raytheon-developed data processing system is helping meteorologists predict with ever-improving accuracy when and where severe weather will occur. That technology, called AWIPS II, is the second iteration of the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System. It helps NOAA's National Weather Service (NWS) issue forecasts, watches and warnings hours or even days before storms cross the horizon.
While checking the weather on smartphones, websites and TV has never been easier, the process NWS meteorologists use to gather and analyze the steady and growing stream of weather data is more complex than it seems.
“Meteorologists have countless sources of data to consider when making forecasts,” said Brad Scalio, a meteorologist and chief engineer for Raytheon's AWIPS program. “Temperature, wind speed and air pressure are familiar to most people, but detailed radar data, infrared satellite images and hydrological river data can be just as important depending on the situation.”
The data that AWIPS analyzes comes from a variety of sources – satellites, ground stations, maritime buoys, weather balloons and airplanes, for example. Raytheon is also a source of that data, with its Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, a primary sensor on NOAA and NASA's Suomi National Polar-Orbiting Partnership satellite and future Joint Polar Satellite System spacecraft. The company's Earth Observing System Data and Information System processes NASA's earth-science data and makes it available to the world.
In the past, aggregating and analyzing weather data was a manual, labor-intensive task. That all changed with the 1998 introduction of AWIPS. Forecasters at 144 NWS offices nationwide use the system's hardware and software to monitor, organize, visualize and distribute weather data from thousands of sensors and sources, view high-detail charts, graphs and maps and issue weather forecasts, watches and warnings.
As the first-generation AWIPS core software approaches obsolescence, the amount of weather data it processes is increasing exponentially. To meet the ever-growing demands of modern forecasters, Raytheon is deploying AWIPS II, the next-generation software upgrade to AWIPS. AWIPS II includes powerful new capabilities that help meteorologists deliver faster, more precise forecasts.
Big Data, Big New Capabilities
“The new AWIPS II automatically aggregates an enormous amount of weather data so the forecaster can focus on getting those familiar weather warnings up on your television faster,” said Andre Tarro, Raytheon AWIPS program manager.
During severe weather outbreaks, speed and accuracy saves lives. To simplify the process of analyzing and understanding the massive amount of weather data available to forecasters, AWIPS II includes video game-like visualization technology. Familiar maps are upgraded to extremely high resolution and combined with hundreds of optional information layers, helping forecasters make high-accuracy, high-detail predictions in a fraction of the time previously required.
When a forecaster identifies a threatening situation, AWIPS II can automatically generate draft watches, warnings and emergency statements from built-in templates, letting forecasters focus on analyzing data and monitoring the situation. AWIPS II also includes thin-client technology that enables NWS forecasters to use the system on a laptop and support emergency management officials from almost any location. Fire weather meteorologists working in remote locations can access the same AWIPS II tools as forecasters monitoring how the weather might affect the Super Bowl.
“Not every outdoor weather event faces a weather emergency,” Scalio said. “But being able to forecast if rain is going to postpone your baseball game is good.”
Built as an open-source software platform, AWIPS II can be continuously improved and adapted for new uses. This architecture will allow government and academic weather, climate, and water researchers to add analytic capabilities to the system. As an example, AWIPS II has been extended to support space weather visualization capabilities that help determine how events like solar flares affect communications systems, power grids, GPS and other satellite systems.
And AWIPS II technology is being used to keep tabs on more than the skies. The open-source software architecture underpinning the system was used by the Consortium of Ocean Leadership in support of a National Science Foundation and NOAA mission creating the world’s first underwater volcano observatory. The April 2015 eruption of the Axial volcano off the coast of the Pacific Northwest created unprecedented new data on underwater volcanoes. Sensor and instrument data was sent and processed by a Raytheon-built system, helping researchers observe and accurately analyze the eruption.
Shelters and sirens can protect people from severe weather events when they occur, but the most effective defense against weather-related loss of life and property is advance warning and knowing how to react. AWIPS II will arm NWS forecasters with the cutting-edge tools and analytic capabilities they need to help people stay one step ahead of Mother Nature well into the future.
“If you know a storm is coming ahead of time," Tarro said, "chances are good that a Raytheon-backed weather data processing system helped make that forecast.”