Advanced system turns the forecast to clear and cool at NWS

Advanced system turns the forecast to clear and cool at NWS

Michelle Murgraf, a forecaster in

Early reviews from forecasters suggest that AWIPS will help improve their prognosticating abilities

By Frank Tiboni

GCN Staff

Meteorologists at the National Weather Service love their new toy'the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System.

The $550 million AWIPS was an invaluable resource for forecasters at the NWS office in Norman, Okla., during the Oklahoma and Kansas tornado outbreak in early May.

'I can't imagine operating as efficiently and as quickly, with the quality and quantity of information that we're provided,' said Dennis McCarthy, Norman's chief meteorologist.

AWIPS let two warning forecasters work simultaneously to provide data to everyone in the office, he said.

Steve Zubrick uses the system at the NWS office in Sterling, Va., near Dulles International Airport, to predict the weather for the Washington and Baltimore areas. He swears by AWIPS.

A giant step

'The old system was a dog,' said Zubrick, Sterling's science and operations officer.

He was referring to the Automation of Field Operations and Services, a 1970s-era weather communications system. AFOS was state-of-the-art in its time, Zubrick said, but technology has long since surpassed it.

After 15 years of design and development, NWS is about to complete the fifth and final phase of its $4.5 billion, decade-long modernization effort.

The agency last month finished the last of 152 scheduled installations of AWIPS, which runs on Hewlett-Packard servers, PCs and monitors at weather forecast offices across the country.

After the team of NWS and Litton PRC completed the rollout two weeks ahead of schedule in mid-June, the agency decided to field AWIPS at three more offices: Caribou, Maine; Key West, Fla.; and another Norman office. The team will finish the installation of the Caribou and Key West offices in two weeks and the Norman site sometime next month, said Jack Hayes, Litton PRC's AWIPS program manager.

Meteorologists across NWS lauded the user-friendliness of the system.

Before AWIPS, forecasters relied on three or more systems to give them the information they used to produce forecasts and warnings.

Now they can quickly see and use weather data from a variety of systems at a single workstation, said Jack Kelly, assistant administrator for weather services at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NWS' parent agency.

The blue, wall-sized AFOS consisted of a large trackball, a keyboard and a monochrome monitor. The self-contained system could overlay only three images, did not distinguish county boundaries, and had no animation or image processing capabilities. In addition, meteorologists had to type in every warning they issued, Zubrick said.

But 'AWIPS has all the features,' said Zubrick, noting the system's cutting-edge commercial hardware and government-developed weather applications software.

Instead of the unwieldy trackball, NWS forecasters use a mouse to navigate on color monitors, overlaying up to nine images to determine trends and create forecasts.

The system lets users display and analyze satellite imagery, radar data, automated weather observations and computer-generated numerical forecasts, Zubrick said.

A typical AWIPS in an NWS forecast office consists of five to nine J200 and J210 workstations running HP-UX 10.20 with three displays: two 19-inch A4575A color graphics monitors and one 19-inch Envizex Series II color X terminal for text products, Hayes said.

Two 160-MHz D370 data servers, one primary and one backup, are used to support data acquisition and management, and two 160-MHz D370 application servers, also a primary and a backup, are used to support the meteorological and hydrological functions. This gives redundancy for all critical AWIPS functions, Hayes said.

NOAA's Forecast Systems Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., and two NWS laboratories in Silver Spring, Md.'the Techniques Development Laboratory and the Office of Hydrology'developed dozens of AWIPS weather applications.

The labs then gave the software to Litton PRC to integrate with the HP hardware, Hayes said.

One application'Warngen'lets forecasters generate and issue warnings. The software displays a simple text warning on the screen that they can modify and send, speeding alert notices.

Mission accomplished

AWIPS is the final piece of NWS' modernization. The effort has included the debut of two geostationary satellites'a third one is ready if needed'120 Doppler radars, 264 of 314 automated weather observing systems and supercomputers, said Mary Glackin, AWIPS program manager.

'It feels great to have the last piece of the modernization to come on board,' Glackin said.

AWIPS dates to 1985, when NWS created an exploratory contract under which seven teams helped develop the system. The agency eventually whittled the seven teams to two, awarding a $335 million contract in January 1993 to what was then PRC Inc. to develop and integrate AWIPS.

Litton PRC accelerated the system deployment from the original 28-month schedule to a 21-month period.

'We rolled out the system in smaller pieces so we could deliver capabilities and get feedback,' Glackin said. The biggest challenge that faced the program, she said, was installing a complicated set of functions over time.

NWS received a lot of feedback from the Norman office after the May tornado outbreak'all positive.

Up to the task

At one point during the outbreak, Norman used four of its six AWIPS workstations to compose severe-weather statements and tornado warnings.

'It would have been hard to imagine working an event of this magnitude using only two Doppler weather radar principal user processors and a couple of personal computers hooked up to AFOS,' according to Norman's summary of operations during the outbreak. 'It is unlikely we could have provided the rapid flow of information and warnings without the use of Warngen.'

With real-case scenarios such as Norman, Glackin has no doubt that AWIPS will help forecasters continue to deliver improved warnings and forecasts.

'Our probability of detection has increased since 1989,' she said. 'Back then we could detect 30 of 100 storms. Now we can detect 80 out of 100 storms.'

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