A couple years ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) set out on a path to create the world’s best weather model—a tool that could dramatically increase the knowledge and safety of boaters nationwide through better predictions about storms and more. And now, having taken a few sizable strides down that path, NOAA is ready to grab a partner and run.
First, NOAA announced partnerships with Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud and Microsoft to exponentially expand access to the mountains of data that NOAA already collects. Next, NOAA tripled its supercomputing capacity, bringing that type of technology on par with what other leading forecast centers are using worldwide. After that, NOAA started sharing National Weather Service computer code with
members of the scientific community to see how experts outside of NOAA, coming from multiple disciplines, might be able to improve forecast models.
And most recently, in March, NOAA put out a request for proposals offering up to $45 million over five years to the technology partner that can use all of those tools and more to build the Earth Prediction Innovation Center, or EPIC.
“You are basically unleashing the potential for researchers to advance the science, and for the private sector to unleash potential uses for the data,” says Chris Vaccaro, NOAA’s senior media relations specialist. “NOAA is a massive data agency. We collect satellite data, surface data—we literally collect billions of pieces of data every day. It’s just a tremendous amount of data, and you want it to be used in the most holistic sense possible.”
In a way, Vaccaro says, NOAA is trying to do for its weather and climate data what the Apple Inc. did in creating its App Store. There’s a basic framework of code and data that is the same for everyone, but within that framework, experts and creators from all kinds of fields can think about an infinite number of ways to unleash ideas. The EPIC project lets private, public and academic thinkers come up with concepts to improve weather modeling within the common infrastructure.
“It’s hard to describe because it’s still in the formative stages,” Vaccaro says. “This is a way of not just limiting the expertise of weather modeling to NOAA, but also opening it up to community. We want all kinds of people with all kinds of expertise.”
The push to create EPIC has come in part, Vaccaro says, from a desire for NOAA to reclaim the international leadership role in weather modeling—which, yes, includes those forecast “spaghetti lines” that boaters home in on whenever there’s a hurricane brewing. Creating more advanced weather models should only improve those types of forecasts, helping everyone from marina owners to fishermen figure out how best to prepare and where to go during hurricane season and more.
By some measures, computer models in Europe and the United Kingdom outperform the U.S.-based models, Vaccaro says. And, the Europeans had more powerful supercomputers that were running fewer models, while the United States had smaller computer capacity trying to run more models. “We have a larger mission on a smaller computer,” he says. “This recent tripling of the computer capacity brings us on par with the Europeans. With all these billions of pieces of data of observations, you need the high-resolution models and the computer capacity to process them.”
Many of the steps NOAA has taken toward creating EPIC stem from the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017, which directed NOAA to prioritize improving weather data, modeling, computing, forecasting and warnings to protect life, property and the economy. Additional legislation that the U.S. Congress passed in 2018 further called on NOAA to accelerate community-developed scientific and technological enhancements for weather prediction. Put simply, Vaccaro says, “We’re widening the bandwidth in which to process all of this environmental data.”
Would-be partners on the EPIC project had until May 11 to submit proposals. NOAA expects to announce the winner and make the cash award by this fall. If all goes well, heading into 2021, the EPIC “extramural center” will be on track to create what NOAA calls “the world’s most accurate and reliable operational weather forecast model.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue.