By Michael Strelcheck
In Wisconsin there’s no greater topic of discussion than the weather. Want a lively discussion; just bring up the subject, for everybody has an opinion on it. As Wisconsinites have long said, “If you don’t like the weather – just wait a few minutes.” To us weather isn’t something that’s simply passing by unnoticed; its’ activity is a passionate interest. Here in the Badger State – weather matters!
Our fascination with the weather started a long time ago when the state was primarily agrarian. Back then families lived and died on the unpredictable moods of nature and there can be no doubt that the range of weather in Wisconsin is extreme, from the blazing hot summers to the frigid dark winters, we have a vibrant and full expression of all the four seasons. And I dare say that’s a big reason why we love it here!
Recently I stopped by the local Starbucks (for a little pick-me-up) and as I waited patiently in line for my large “Double Latte Mocha Express,” I overheard a heated discussion of some energized or perhaps over-caffeined patrons nearby. Being a polite Midwesterner, I tried to not listen, but it was pretty hard not to, and their volume level suggested that they weren’t really trying to keep the discussion private. They were exchanging their viewpoints over the lack of political discussion on the concept of “global warming.” As they each expressed their opinion-one feeling “global warming” is real and it’s greatly affecting local crop yields, and there needs to be something done-while the other felt that wild weather is natural to Wisconsin – and we should do our best to predict it and adapt accordingly. The latter shared, to strengthen his argument, the fact that NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) had recently purchased a brand new computer system that it had designed to more accurately predict weather patterns. This he reasoned, would greatly help the situation.
Unfortunately the two patrons couldn’t come to an agreement over the topic, but their conversation got me thinking. Perhaps both opinions are valid and the solution may be to do a little of both. But the idea that the government had bought a new high powered computer caught my interest, so I did a little research. It seems that NOAA had recently fallen behind in its capability to accurately predict the weather (3 years ago failing to accurately predict Hurricane Sandy that blindsided the New Jersey coastline). Surprisingly, the path of the Hurricane was accurately predicted by the European weather computer model, but NOAA chose to stay with their system’s data, which led to New Jersey being woefully unprepared for the strength of the storm. The problem came clear when the European weather model said that “Sandy” would dramatically change direction and deliver a “left-hook” to the coast days before the top American weather model figured it out! Consequently, NOAA failed to tell New Jersey to “duck” in time!
Apparently this event delivered a humiliating blow to the U.S. weather service, so much so that NOAA decided, rather than use the European forecasts (which are readily available and clearly superior), it was going to compete and prove itself to be better. Hence it purchased a Cray supercomputer that could process 3 quadrillion calculation per second! The new system cost $44.5 million and is the size of a school bus filled with the power of 12,500 high-end laptops. But for all that money, the new super computer is merely the 18th fastest in the U.S. and 42nd fastest in the world. One has to wonder how much more NOAA had to spend to rewrite their computer software to bring it up to date with the current weather patterns and how much money will be needed to continually update its computer models as nature alters its weather activity? Time will tell if this investment will really improve our ability to predict and thus adjust more affectively to the rapidly changing weather patterns.
Perhaps a better solution was to form an agreement to work with the European weather service rather than to compete with it. None-the-less, this effort is far more reasonable in cost than actively addressing the idea that “carbon emissions” are the cause of weather changes and the investments required to make a difference. Unfortunately, this predictive approach, if successful, won’t prevent, no matter how much warning time the system can provide, the massive destruction (and its cost) from the new high-powered storms nature is generating. Unfortunately someone has to pay for the damage, whether its businesses or consumers, that often runs into billions of dollars.
It seems our country is caught between a rock and a hard place, and like it or not, we’re going to have to try to do more than just predict the weather, for no matter how good we are at it, storms, tornados, floods, wild fires, mud slides, and droughts are happening with an alarming frequency devastating not only the U.S., but other countries as well. This reality seems to be the “elephant in the room” that’s not being discussed when our political parties talk about the future. It’s clear politicians see this topic as “untouchable” due to fact there’s no cheap answer. Maybe the best thing people can do to bring light to this growing problem is to strike up passionate conversations about it in public places, for its always public opinion that drives the government to take action.