Friday, November 9, 2012

ECMWF Awarded Noble Prize in Prediction

From a recent story in USA Today about Hurricane Sandy and the performance of the European Center for Medium Range Weather Forecasts:

AccuWeather's Mike Smith, author of Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather [said] "… the bottom line is that forecasters nailed this storm days ahead of its arrival. The people behind Europe's model should receive a Nobel Prize in physics, this was that powerful a moment in weather science."

There is no precedent for a meteorologist winning the true Nobel Prize (except perhaps the 2007 prize for IPCC and Al Gore).

So today I awarded the staff of ECMWF their own “Noble [sic] Prize in Prediction” for the production of exceptional Numerical Weather Predictions during Hurricane Sandy. It was my last day as a visiting scientist there.  

2012-11-09 12.40.32

The head of the research department Erland Källén (a Swede, right) graciously received the trophy (bottom center) on behalf of the employees (back).

2012-11-09 11.20.01

On behalf of the operational departments, Erik Andersson (another Swede) and David Richardson (English, but still a nice person) accepted Pop-Tart prizes (bottom) and a mélange of home made cookies (back left).

During past disasters retailers report massive sales spikes in Pop-Tarts and have taken to pre-staging them based on the forecasts:

The experts mined the [past sales] data and found that the stores would indeed need certain products - and not just the usual flashlights. "We didn't know in the past that strawberry Pop-Tarts increase in sales, like seven times their normal sales rate, ahead of a hurricane," Ms. Dillman said in a recent interview. "And the pre-hurricane top-selling item was beer." Thanks to those insights, trucks filled with toaster pastries and six-packs were soon speeding down Interstate 95 toward Wal-Marts in the path of Frances.

The monetary prize (a 5 pound itunes gift card) was donated to charity, partly to avoid the inevitable conflicts of dividing it 250 ways among the staff. Others are encouraged to donate to the Red Cross a show of support for those impacted by the national tragedy.

USA Today has a few more stories lauding the European Weather Centre’s forecasts:

Several days before Sandy came ashore in New Jersey on Monday night, forecasters were warning of a superstorm that would make a highly unusual left turn into the coastline. Anyone who didn't know a big storm was coming wasn't paying attention. This was a triumph of modern meteorology that undoubtedly saved many lives. In the era of satellites, supercomputers and instant communications, "surprise" hurricanes, such as the one that killed hundreds of people in New York and New England in 1938, are largely a thing of the past.

But before Americans get smug about their superior scientific sophistication, there is this to consider: Of the two main computer weather-forecasting models, the American and the European, the European was by far the better performer on Sandy. In the middle of last week, the British-based European model, known as the ECMWF, was already showing an unusually powerful storm moving up from the Bahamas and slamming into the mid-Atlantic coast.

Other good reads include Forecasters Absolutely Nailed This One, and Mike Smith’s own This Was Their Finest Hour (part 1 and part 2). Speaking of institutional competence…


A few days ago the Daily Show had a piece praising the effectiveness of preparations for and response to the storm.

The New York Times reports that the subways are operating again only a week after the disaster.

It has been less than two weeks since the most devastating storm in the New York City subway system’s 108-year history. Seven tunnels beneath the East River flooded. Entire platforms were submerged. Underground equipment, some of it decades old, was destroyed.

The damage was the worst that the system had ever seen. And yet, the subways have come back — quicker than almost anyone could have imagined. Less than three days after the storm hit, partial subway service was restored. Most major lines were back within a week. Repairs came so quickly in some cases that the authority was ready before Consolidated Edison had restored power.

“Some of what they’re doing borders on the edge of magic,” said Gene Russianoff, the staff lawyer for the Straphangers Campaign, a rider advocacy group that is frequently critical of the authority.

The forecasts lead to the protection of critical infrastructure and this is partly responsible for the rapid recovery compared to other disasters.


Sealing up air vents in the subway


More protections of subways



Battening boats


Removing underground electronics and pumps

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