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Weather Forecasting Advances Have Colorado Roots

Many of the government weather organizations have a rich heritage of making Colorado home


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Here in Colorado, we've all heard the saying: "If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes." When discussing weather in our home state, it's likely one of the first things anyone tells you. And while a slight exaggeration, the sentiment is not far off.

Colorado is home to some interesting weather patterns.

Despite having more sunny days every year than the Sunshine State – Florida – we also see heavy snow storms during the winter months. Then, we'll get severe summer weather where warm temperatures and atmospheric instability can sometimes cause afternoon thunderstorms on the Front Range with hail and lightning. 

FORECASTING TECHNOLOGY

Most early forecasts were based on limited weather observations. While these alone are beneficial in short-term predictions like nowcasts, by themselves they are not as capable of making reasonably accurate predictions several days into the future. The capability to produce accurate, reliable, longer-term forecasts has been rooted in the ability to effectively leverage a combination of observations (e.g. ground-based and satellite), numerical modeling and high-performance computing. Research conducted in each of these areas has also been vital.

Forecasting advancements over the last several decades allow us to now better choose what to wear each day, plan the next trip to Arapahoe Basin or take cover before to a severe weather event. Such advancements are expected to continue, and many are being developed by both public and private organizations right here in Colorado. 

COLORADO'S IMPACT ON WEATHER FORECASTING TECH

Today, new technologies are allowing meteorologists and weather forecasters to develop better and more complete forecasts. While innovation in weather technology is propelling forecasts forward, who is helping to innovate weather technology?

The state of Colorado has a myriad of organizations developing innovative weather monitoring technologies: the University of Colorado Boulder, Colorado State University, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder are researching weather phenomena and weather tech innovation while other public and private companies — such as Spire, Global Weather Corporation, WeatherFlow and others are also having an impact.

In March 2018, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which has operations in Boulder, launched GOES-17, the second of the current generation of geostationary weather satellite systems. The GOES system supports operational weather forecasting, severe storm tracking and meteorology research through a variety of environmental monitoring instrumentation. The advanced baseline imager (ABI) provides multiple optical channels in the visible and infrared spectrum for cloud and surface temperature observations, and the geostationary lightning mapper (GLM) looks for rapid changes in the optical signature around a very specific near-infrared band.

Vaisala, which has its U.S. headquarters in Colorado, owns and operates terrestrial-based lightning location networks – both precision and global – complemented by the GLM data. As the global leader in products and solutions for environmental and industrial weather measurement, Vaisala operates the National Lightning Detection Network (NLDN), which detects lightning in the continental U.S., and the Global Lightning Dataset, GLD360, detecting lightning all around the world. The NLDN locates discharges to the ground with location accuracy better than 200 meters. Globally, GLD360 detects lightning with a location accuracy around 1.5 kilometers. Vaisala’s lightning detection technology also has the capacity to differentiate between in-cloud (IC) and cloud-to-ground (CG) lightning.   

Both the NLDN and GLD360 locate lightning by measuring radio impulses generated by lightning activity with a network of remote sensors. Each sensor extracts information about the characteristics of each discharge and sends it back to a central processor which transforms the raw data to user-ready information about the location and time of lightning flashes. Both of these technologies also report the strength of each lightning discharge, among other attributes.

When NOAA’s GLM and Vaisala’s NLDN or GLD360 are combined, meteorologists are able to gather a better picture of the ratio between in-cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning flashes. Additionally, the GLM is ideal for characterizing the total number and horizontal extent of flashes within a thunderstorm, while the NLDN and GLD360 provide much higher spatial resolution, particularly for cloud-to-ground strokes. 

WHY COLORADO

So, why are all of these leading-edge weather experts concentrated in Colorado?

Surprisingly, it has very little to do with the actual weather, although the state’s weather, along with its unique outdoor lifestyle, attracts people to the region. Many of the government weather organizations have a rich heritage of making Colorado home. Further, Colorado’s Front Range continues to attract science- and technology-based organizations and research centers to partner with and develop solutions to solve a wide range of challenging weather-related problems. Finally, a highly educated and skilled workforce provides a solid and growing resource pool for these organizations.

Colorado-based companies like Vaisala and research centers such as CSU, NOAA and NCAR and are making weather technology innovation a priority to create faster, smarter, simpler and more accurate weather monitoring solutions to help provide information to the public for both comfort and safety. Through public/private/academic partnerships, many Colorado professionals are working together to provide the world's meteorologists with the most comprehensive lightning information available, allowing them to advise the public and make outdoor activities — whether for work or recreation — as safe as possible.


Casey McCullar is head of lightning solutions business for Vaisala, Inc. in Louisville.

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