Op-Ed: Building a ‘Weather-Ready’ Nation


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Water is our most precious resource. It sustains and nourishes all life on earth and underpins our entire economy, from energy and agriculture to trade and recreation. Yet water also represents one of our greatest threats. Torrential downpours, flash and river flooding, droughts and other severe weather events provide us with constant reminders of its destructive power.

In April, severe flooding in Houston claimed eight lives and inflicted over $1.2 billion in damages to homes and businesses. In July, the downtown business district of Ellicott City, Md., was devastated by a storm that shed a month's worth of rainfall in just a single night. And this week, federal and state emergency responders are working to help flood-stricken communities in Louisiana recover from record-setting rainfall.

Nationwide, at least 101 million Americans live in drought conditions today, with consequences that include a limited water supply, increased risk of wildfires and higher energy bills.

At the Department of Commerce, building a "weather ready" nation is an essential part of our mission to keep America open for business. Our ability to monitor and predict the movement of water throughout our environment is critical to public safety and to our national economic security. At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) our scientists and environmental experts are constantly working to enhance our forecasting capabilities, improve the delivery of vital information to our communities and promote a more resilient nation.

Last week, NOAA's efforts to build a "weather-ready nation" took a major step forward with the National Weather Service's launch of a new, highly-sophisticated National Water Model. Unprecedented in its reach, the new system pulls in data from over 8,000 U.S. Geological Survey stream gauges, leverages NOAA's investment in atmospheric prediction, produces simulations for 2.7 million stream reaches and extends coverage to the homes and businesses of 100 million Americans who live in coastal communities.

Using the new National Water Model, forecasters now have access to data for 700 times more locations than previously available. The vast reach of the system will even benefit communities without stream gauges of their own, as it predicts river flows using current weather conditions and generates a sophisticated set of variables, such as soil moisture, surface runoff and stream velocity. In other words, the model enables us to provide towns far from any river gauges with more timely information about when rain pouring down on a community many miles away is likely to send local waters soaring.

Put simply, our new National Water Model harnesses more water data, provides more information and serves more Americans than ever before. For the first time, communities will receive hourly, weekly and monthly forecasts based on output from the National Water Model. This information will help businesses and industry leaders, first responders and emergency managers, state and local governments make more informed decisions.

Perhaps most exciting about the new system is that it can continually be improved. The National Water Model was and will continue to be developed through close collaboration among our partners in the academic community, the private sector and other federal agencies, including the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the USGS, the National Science Foundation and the Consortium of Universities for Advancement of Hydrologic Sciences. We look forward to working closely with stakeholders on new features that will help emergency planners fight flooding when water is high and drought when water is low. And later this year, NOAA will launch a new weather satellite that will provide us with even faster, higher resolution images of major weather events and emerging threats.

The time is now to prepare our communities, businesses, and governments for the weather, water, and climate threats of the future. The launch of the new National Water Model represents a new frontier in NOAA's water prediction capabilities, and serves as a powerful demonstration of our commitment at the Commerce Department to help Americans prepare for severe weather and prosper in the face of a changing climate.

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Last updated: 2016-08-23 13:34

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