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September-October 2011

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Weather Wide Web: How Meteorology Helped Launch the Internet

It was not quite noon on a Sunday in late April. For days, the middle of the country had been hammered by severe storms, and vicious tornados were winding up all over the central states. Greg Dee had just finished his morning workout and was about to head home when his Blackberry went off. He wasn't scheduled to start work until that afternoon, but the National Weather Service (NWS) tornado warning on his screen set him in motion. Dee was back on duty. “I knew it was going to take me 20 minutes to get into the station,” said KARK-TV meteorologist from Little Rock, Arkansas. “So, I tweeted the map, told people to turn on the station, and said I was on my way in.” Dee checked in with the NWS chatroom for meteorologists and continued to watch the radar on his phone, accessing information with an immediacy only dreamt of a decade ago.

Caption: A black 4th generation iPhone by Apple, displaying the weekly weather forecast on its screen.

Caption: A black 4th generation iPhone by Apple, displaying the weekly weather forecast on its screen.

On any given Tuesday during sailing season, Mark Thornton logs on to the Web and begins monitoring the long-range model outputs from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and Penn State's e-wall. Over the next few days, he watches the data stream, makes his forecast, and sets his plans for a weekend cruise on Lake Erie. His forecast is as solid as if he were a meteorologist and not an administrator for an Ohio law firm.

It has been 20 years this month since the first Web page in the United States was created for an austere group of nuclear physicists at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. Since then, the World Wide Web has revolutionized forecast meteorology—perhaps more dramatically than any other field of science. Access to the Internet has democratized the flow of weather information and flooded the scientific field with data. More than just passive receptors for the technology, meteorologists were at the forefront of this emerging global connectivity and helped to bring the concept of live, interactive data to a global audience.


Like many technological advances, modern computer networking was brought into being by the U.S. military. In the mid-1950s, the Department of Defense commissioned the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and set the wheels in motion for the development of the first computer network, ARPA-NET. As the technology grew, networks began to form at other government agencies and research organizations.

But it could be argued that the seed of technology-based networking was planted long before that—in the 1870s in fact—when the U.S. Army Signal Service recorded the first systematized synchronous weather observations at 22 stations and telegraphed them to Washington, D.C. It was the dawn of the National Weather Service. Signal corps founder Colonel Albert J. Meyer wrote at the time “the idea of a world-wide system of telegraphic weather reports is not nearly as chimerical to-day as was thirty years ago the workings of the telegraph itself.” Shortly thereafter, synchronized weather reports were being telegraphed from Australia, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

A century later, during the gestational years of computer networking, the NWS deployed what was then the most ambitious network ever. In 1979, they connected all Weather Service forecast offices through Automation of Field Operation Services (AFOS). Both the sheer volume of data transmitted and the number of entry points set records, and served as an important stepping stone for AWIPS, the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System, which is the modern corner stone of NWS operations. By then, the benefits of sharing information between the various universities and research center networks had become obvious. To achieve that data-sharing goal, the National Science Foundation (NSF) created NSF-NET in 1987, laying the groundwork for the information superhighway we now call the Internet.


The early Internet was a pretty arcane affair, accessible only by government agencies, research organizations, and universities. Users had to log on to a computer terminal and type very precise and somewhat obscure commands to retrieve information in clunky text-only display against a blank screen. It was used for e-mail, searching library catalogues, and, in the case of the NWS, weather data. Its purpose for broader applications, especially public use, would not become evident until computers became smaller and less expensive, and someone found a way to make the Internet more user-friendly.

To that end, researchers were working feverishly to expand functionality. Among the pioneers were meteorology professor Perry Samson and Ph.D. student Jeff Masters at the University of Michigan. “Basically being a lazy man, I wanted to have weather data in time for a nine o'clock class,” Samson recalled. “So I challenged all my students to find a way to get that information.” In response, Masters wrote a program for tel-net sessions through which a user could type in the name of a town or city and receive live weather information over the NSF-net. That was in 1991. Samson recalled, “It was unbelievable for us. We could get live weather information.” Word spread quickly among universities, and before the year was out 80,000 people were using the system. “We just looked at each other and said ‘This network thing could be big,’” Samson said.

With NSF funding, they hired Alan Steremberg to help bring their program into school science classrooms. Sturemberg created an application, which they called Blue Skies, that displayed current conditions in different cities as students rolled their mouse over a map on their screens. According to Samson, it was the first system in the world to incorporate interactive graphics on the Internet. People packed the aisles at meteorology and education conferences to see Samson demonstrate the program.

The University of Michigan was not alone, however. There was a friendly but heated rivalry with the University of Illinois and Michigan State, which were simultaneously developing Internet weather products. Mohan Ramamurthy at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign had been bringing real time weather data into his meteorology classrooms using a system they called Weather Machine. It operated on the very first, primitive Internet browser, called Gopher. While it couldn't display graphics directly, Weather Machine allowed users to download images that they could then open on their computers.

These were exciting advances, but their reliance on specific computer systems meant that within two years, both would become obsolete. In 1993, the introduction of a new computer language, HTML (for Hypertext Markup Language), enabled a standardized user-friendly interface across the internet regardless of the type of system a computer was running. Designed by a group of hydrogen physicists at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) HTML opened the internet to everyone with a computer, and it became the dominant vehicle for accessing the internet—the tool we now call the World Wide Web. That same year, the National Center for Super Computing at the University of Illinois developed Mosaic, the first public HTML-based browser. It enabled graphics and linked text.

“I happened to be there [at University of Illinois] when Mosaic was created, and so we saw tremendous potential in applying that technology to disseminate weather products,” Ramamurthy said. He and his colleagues moved their efforts from Weather Machine to the burgeoning World Wide Web. They called their first Web site the Daily Planet. “We used to get 100,000 plus hits literally, and back in those days those were huge numbers,” he said.


Meanwhile, personal computers had become affordable for businesses and homes, and Internet service providers like AOL and Compuserve were selling Internet access to individuals for as little as $20 a month. The Web was open for business. Within a few short years, Masters and Steremberg went on to found the Weather Underground, and other weather Websites proliferated. Travelers could now check the weather in their destination city. Skiers could get the ski report before hitting the slopes. Intellicast posted live weather conditions around the world. Florida State University provided meteorological and oceanographic conditions for coastal weather stations. Michigan State served up beautiful weather satellite images. Weather sites were a popular draw for a public still learning what to do with this new Internet medium, and they continually appeared in listings of the most popular Websites.

Today, there is more available on the Web than was even imaginable 15 years ago. A Vietnamese villager can pull up a map of the American Midwest and follow icons that represent storm chasers in action. If she clicks on one, she can watch streaming video from the window of a chase vehicle as a tornado blows a transformer half way around the world. An insomniac in Manhattan can monitor lightning activity from thunderstorms in Indonesia. A high school student can peruse historical weather information for every city in the world that has an airport. Shortly after the tsunami and nuclear accident in Japan, Samson created a Web site showing the wind flow over each city relative to the nuclear plant, and within days he had thousands of hits. If there is something happening with the weather, someone will put it on the Web. The power of networking has now extended beyond the Web to mobile devices that put all of that information in people's pockets.

Caption: In 1991, CERN was developing early World Wide Web pages like this one that could be accessed by any computer regardless of the system on which it ran.

Caption: In 1991, CERN was developing early World Wide Web pages like this one that could be accessed by any computer regardless of the system on which it ran.

Weather blogs have also enabled vigorous dialogue, and experts say they are seeing some very sophisticated conversations from untrained weather enthusiasts who now have access to so much information—and not just forecasts. Actual weather observations and model output data are available from NOAA and other organizations. In the decision to make such data openly available across the Internet, NSF gave everyone the freedom to delve as far into the world of meteorology as they want to, making potential forecasters out of everyone.

Mark Thornton had been an avid sailor with no particular knowledge of meteorology when he became frustrated by erroneous marine forecasts. The Web gave him an opportunity to take matters into his own hands when he signed up for an online forecasting course through Penn State University. Without ever stepping foot in a classroom, or taking time away from his career as a legal administrator, Thornton went on to complete Penn State's two-year program, discovering a new passion for meteorology along the way. He now gives weather seminars for other sailors and maintains a Web site where he reformats readily available data to target the needs of sailors.


Caption: The introduction of HTML enabled this webpage to feature embedded links and point and click navigation.

Caption: The introduction of HTML enabled this webpage to feature embedded links and point and click navigation.

As in any true democracy, all members of this amateur forecaster community not only have access and opportunity, but input into the system. “The whole thing about learning about weather is being able to contribute information as well,” Masters said. “So users aren't just getting data from us, they're actually contributing to that data.” Tens of thousands of citizen observers are streaming their home weather station data to Websites like Weather Underground and Weather Bug. More than 8,000 of them are linked to the Citizens Weather Observation Program, which is used by nearly 500 organizations including the National Weather Service forecast offices, federal and state agencies, and universities. The entire field of meteorology is benefiting from the free flow of information.

Among television forecasters, the explosion of social media has opened a dialogue with the public. “On Facebook and our twitter platforms, not only can we feed information out, but now we have an invaluable source of information coming back to us,” said Tom Skilling, Chief Meteorologist for WGN-TV in Chicago. “I can't imagine anymore working without it.” Skilling described a derecho that blew through his viewing area at 70 mph producing local 100 mph wind gusts and more than 10,000 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes in a three-hour period. While he knew from the radar and sensor data that it was a powerful storm, it was the posts to his Facebook page that gave him an idea of the extent of the damage “We essentially have more eyes on the sky, and we're getting more ground truths on what we're seeing with our remote sensing devices.”

There is no better example of the public providing immediate ground truth than the photo of a tornado on April 27 that Topper Shutt received from a Facebook fan in Camp Springs, Maryland. “It was pretty remarkable,” said Shutt, who is Chief Meteorologist at WUSA-TV, in Washington, D.C. “I'm on the air saying here's the storm on this particular intersection, and by golly I get a picture of pretty much that intersection within a minute or two.”

Users are also getting reports directly from one another, and according to Skilling, sometimes that registers more clearly than when it comes from a forecaster. Recalling a storm last December in which his cautionary forecasts had called for more snow than actually fell, he said, “There were people in the city who looked out their window and said, ‘Hey it doesn't look bad in my neighborhood at all.’” But the Facebook posts on the station's page told a different story that convinced many people to stay home. In the end, high winds produced ground blizzard conditions just outside the city. Sixty mph gusts tore the roof off the Navy Pier along the Chicago lake front and produced a 20-car pile up to the west of the city. I find that time and again, when it might look rather innocuous in one part of our area, the gravity of the situation is brought home to folks by reports from others who are actually in it witnessing the effects of these storms.”

Back in Arkansas, forecaster Greg Dee said that during severe weather coverage, his Facebook fans use the station's Facebook page to communicate with each other. “Someone or several of them will be watching the station's weather coverage, and they'll be informing others as far as what's going on and what we're saying for those who can't see it, either because they don't have satellite or TV reception, or they can't stream on their phone. They will use it as a forum to get the information out.”

That kind of direct public interaction adds tangibility to severe weather events that didn't exist before. Immediately following the April 27 tornado outbreak in Arkansas, Patty Bullion, a private citizen, created a Facebook page for people to post photographs and documents like the ones she found raining down on her home after a tornado hit 10 miles away. While reconnecting victims with treasured memories, it also created a poignant record of the human toll exacted by these storms.

Caption: Social network pages like this one, which help reconnect victims of a tornado with the remains of their scattered possessions, are testaments to the realities of weather-related disasters.

Caption: Social network pages like this one, which help reconnect victims of a tornado with the remains of their scattered possessions, are testaments to the realities of weather-related disasters.

Caption: Emergency Management Administrators make use of social networks to transmit critical warnings.

Caption: Emergency Management Administrators make use of social networks to transmit critical warnings.


With the vast ocean of data out there and a cacophony of untrained voices chiming in to the meteorological discourse, some might think the waters could get pretty muddy, and at times they do.

Any weather enthusiast can start up a weather blog or post to a chat room with erroneous information that lingers and spreads, as things on the Web have a way of doing. Individual reports of weather events are, as they have always been, subject to the experience of the reporter. But today, everyone is a potential reporter, whether or not they know how to distinguish a tornado from a wall cloud. And often they don't.

Even among trusted weather sites, the pressure to satisfy the demand for ever more personalized reports has led to misleading presentations. For instance, when temperature, humidity, or wind speed is shown for a location on a map, it may be interpolated from data points that are miles apart with the desired location somewhere in between. The result may be calculated solely on distance from either point, with no accounting for other factors such as geographic features or wind patterns.

Additionally, when a Web site or mobile app claims to display live radar, what it is really showing may be up to six minutes old. Despite claims of personalized forecasts, the resolution of the radar data is not as fine as the resolution of the satellite maps that often underlie it. Under certain circumstances, “‘Live, local’ radar on the Web may appear to be showing a storm that is tracking right over your house, when in fact it is miles away,” said Dee.

When Thornton speaks to sailors about weather forecasting, he warns them about delays in the radar data and the potential for misinterpretation. “If you have a squall line that's moving at 60 knots, it can move five or six miles between volume scans,” he cautions, “So, if you're thinking you've still got 10 minutes or something before the storm gets there, you might truly only have three or four minutes.” Those are crucial minutes if you are battening sails or seeking shelter.

Caption: The internet has created high expectations of forecast meteorologists whose followers now expect instant, personalized weather information around the clock.

Caption: The internet has created high expectations of forecast meteorologists whose followers now expect instant, personalized weather information around the clock.


Among the synchronicities between forecast meteorology and the Internet is that neither ever sleeps. In a society grown accustomed to 24/7 access to information, people have come to expect immediate answers to very specific questions that belie forecasting capabilities and stretch the traditional role of weather forecasters.

Between 8:45 and 9:00 p.m. on May 1, 2011, Greg Dee posted nine times to his Facebook page. In those 15 minutes, he answered questions regarding weather in Arkansas about the threat of wind and hail overnight, whether the roads would be safe for one reader to drive to work in Maumelle at 11:30, or if the White River would flood near another reader's home in Batesville. He responded to a question about damage around Sugar Loaf, and why clouds moved to the south when the storm was moving northeast. In response to an LOL about the never-ending rain, he quipped back that his inflatable ark was ready. He posted two radar images and one warning.

This was the pace of his postings throughout the night, and a look at his Facebook page indicates that this is not unusual when storms are in the area. Expectations for instant, personal attention on the Web have grown to levels that beg the question; “is this sustainable?” Many TV forecasters said they feel the pressure, but then, they shrugged their shoulders and confessed that they love what they do and would be thinking about the weather even if they weren't answering tweets and blogging.

“I honestly do it because I know that they're scared,” Dee said. “The people that are really active on [my] Facebook page have had some sort of storm experience. They will stay up all night if they know there's a chance of severe weather.” In the wee hours of the morning, after a storm had passed, one poster asked Dee, “Can I go to sleep now?”


It seems unimaginable that precise forecasts will ever be available at the level of a street address or neighborhood, but with the legion of sensors blanketing the globe today, the potential has just begun to be tapped. “Everything that measures and senses something is being connected to the Web,” said Robert Marshall, president and CEO of Earth Networks, the parent company for Weatherbug. “Understanding our environment has never been more critical, and the only way to improve climate and weather science is to have better and more observations.”

His company is building a network of greenhouse gas sensors, and among the many weather companies out there, it seems that new sensors for lightning, pollen, wind, temperature, and moisture are being added daily. IBM even envisions a future in which every person will serve as a sensor, reporting information about their environment to a global community via a chip in their wallet, phone, or car.

Mobile technology will surely bring developments we have yet to envision, but Ramamurthy said he is certain it is the key to the future. He supposes some day, if a tornado is bearing down on you as you sip coffee in Starbucks, your mobile device will sound an alarm and automatically route you to the nearest shelter. “How many people know if they're near a shelter?” he asks.

If such an app doesn't exist already, it is bound to come along soon. Because weather itself, transported over the information superhighway of earth's atmosphere, reaches farther into the lives of everyone on the planet than any other piece of data on the Web.

The drive to build computer networks came from the military. The breakthrough that made networks available to the public came from nuclear physicists, and the motivation to cast a Web around the world and open it to the public came from commercial interests. But weather data and the field of meteorology have been intrinsic to the leading edge of that technology. The ubiquitous need to know today's weather will continue to help push the technology forward, because just like the weather, the Web never sleeps and the Internet is always changing.

Caption: The NEXRAD Doppler Radar station at the National Weather Service in San Angelo, Texas.

Caption: The NEXRAD Doppler Radar station at the National Weather Service in San Angelo, Texas.

KIMBRA CUTLIP is a freelance writer and former assistant editor for Weatherwise.

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