MINNEAPOLIS (KMSP) - The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its partners have developed a new forecasting tool to simulate how water moves throughout the nation’s rivers and streams, paving the way for the biggest improvement in flood forecasting this country has ever seen.
River level forecasting is arguably the hardest thing to do for scientists at NOAA and hydrologists at the National Weather Service. What makes it so difficult is that there are so many variables at play that are constantly changing. You have to account for not only what’s going on in the atmosphere, but how that has affected things on the ground. You are looking at previous rains, future rains (which is clearly not an exact science), but also terrain, how and where rain has fallen, where snow cover remains and how much moisture is in that snow (when dealing with spring runoff), and hundreds, maybe even thousands of other variables… many of which can be unique to one area. So the procedures used to forecast a river level in North Dakota, can’t be applied to forecasting river levels in Minnesota or anywhere else in the United States.
This is where NOAA’s brand new supercomputer comes in. The Cray XC40 supercomputer uses data from more than 8,000 U.S. Geological Survey gauges to simulate conditions for 2.7 million locations in the contiguous United States. The model generates hourly forecasts for the entire river network. Before this week, NOAA has only been able to forecast streamflow for 4,000 locations every few hours.
Initially, the model will benefit flash flood forecasts in headwater areas and provide water forecast information for many areas that currently aren’t covered. As the model evolves, it will provide “zoomed-in,” street-level forecasts and inundation maps to improve flood warnings, and will expand to include water quality forecasts.
“Over the past 50 years, our capabilities have been limited to forecasting river flow at a relatively limited number of locations. This model expands our forecast locations 700 times and generates several additional water variables, such as soil moisture, runoff, stream velocity, and other parameters to produce a more comprehensive picture of water behavior across the country” Said Thomas Graziano, Ph.D., director of NOAA’s new Office of Water Prediction at the National Weather Service in a press release.
With all of the recent flooding in Louisiana, this upgrade couldn’t come at a better time. The announcement of this new forecasting model fulfills a commitment President Obama made to the American public on World Water Day in March. In a White House statement, he called for “cross-cutting, creative solutions to solving the water problems of today, as well as innovative strategies that will catalyze change in how we use, conserve, protect and think about water in the years to come.”
Now, before you start planning to build your dream house in a flood zone, this new model won’t be perfect and flooding, flash flooding, and water quality is still far from an exact science. But this is a BADLY needed upgrade to a long outdated system. Think of it as upgrading from a car phone of the 90s, to a smart phone of today. It will still have its own problems and is far from perfect, but will be far superior to what we had.