NOAA computer modeler stays step ahead of El Nio

Ming Ji, a native
of China, says science has always come easy to him. He now uses complex weather models to
predict El Ni'o’s patterns.


Ming Ji has a reputation for burning the most computer time of any scientist at the
National Center for Environmental Prediction.


The meteorologist, a U.S. citizen born in China, works 50 or more hours a week running
climate models on a Silicon Graphics Inc. Origin2000 server. His job: predicting the next
El Ni'o tantrum. Ming said he sees his job as capturing a view into the future—a
view that can save lives and money. To fine-tune the view, he manipulates weather models
that run under the Iris 6.4 operating system on the SGI server, which has 8
million-instruction-per-second processors, 160G of memory and RAID Level 5 storage.


Ming’s El Ni'o forecasts for this year alerted emergency officials in California,
the Southwest and Florida of worst-case scenarios. His forecasts let agricultural,
business and government leaders make decisions that prevented the loss of nearly $1
billion in goods and services, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration report.


NCEP generates weather forecasts for NOAA organizations nationwide. The agency monitors
and predicts the worldwide climate for periods ranging from weeks to seasons.


“Ming is incredible,” said Ants Leetmaa, NCEP director and Ming’s
mentor. “He has the ability to visualize these complex computer models. His brain is
organized like a computer.”


The 41-year-old Ming said science has always come easy to him. His parents were
meteorologists in Beijing, which led him to the same career.


“I wanted to be a scientist, but it was tough growing up in China during that
time,” he said, referring to the turbulent years during Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural
Revolution.


Ming worked as a laborer after high school at Peking University until the end of the
Cultural Revolution. He scored well on the college entrance exam, completed a physics
degree in three years and then came to the United States in 1982 to pursue a graduate
degree at the University of Maryland.


“Everybody knows the best graduate schools are in the United States,” Ming
said. “That’s why I wanted to come here.”


Ming used his father’s savings and borrowed money from his aunt for the $830
one-way plane fare. He arrived with $60 in his pocket and a scholarship. He said he hit
the books immediately, studying meteorology and English. To earn extra money, he worked in
the school library.


Ming earned his doctorate in meteorology from Maryland in 1989. He met his wife,
Ching-Hsien Wang, in China, but they married here during his graduate studies. They have
two sons.


Ming started working at NCEP in 1986 while he was finishing his doctorate. He worked
first on ocean and climate models.


In his office in the NCEP building in Camp Springs, Md., an El Ni'o poster looms above
his computer, which he said reminds him regularly of the job at hand.


Ming said he spends 10 hours each day perched in front of a Hewlett-Packard Co. 755
monitoring system, which is linked directly via Ethernet to the Origin 2000, tapping into
his climate models.


Ming develops the El Ni'o models, which he creates using Fortran, by merging NCEP
atmosphere models with ocean models designed by the staff at NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid
Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, N.J. The models are built on mathematical equations that
allow Ming to manipulate oceanic and atmospheric conditions, including temperature,
clouds, winds and rain, to mimic weather patterns similar to those of El Ni'o.


El Ni'o is an abnormal warming of the eastern Pacific Ocean that causes extreme
weather around the globe. Scientists say El Ni'o causes droughts, mud slides, hurricanes,
tornadoes and even booming locust populations.


The Pacific Ocean tends to have a warm region in the West and a cold tongue of water in
the East. The surface temperature in the warm pool averages 82 to 84 degrees, while the
temperature in the cold tongue normally averages 77 degrees or lower. Ming explained that
El Ni'o effects are brought on when the surface temperature in the cold tongue rises
several degrees. La Ni'a weather occurs when the temperature in the cold tongue falls a
couple of degrees, he said.


Ming uses his model to forecast El Ni'o and La Ni'a weather patterns six months in
advance. NCEP makes seasonal forecasts of climate conditions based on his predictions.


So far, his El Ni'o predictions have been fairly accurate. He forecasted the mild
effects from 1992 to 1995, and was on the money about the more severe effects of the past
year, Leetmaa and other NCEP officials said.


“The best feeling in the world is when you make the right forecast,” Ming
said. “You feel like you’re benefiting society.”  

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