Feature Story

Big data takes weather forecasting by storm

by Mary Gorges

From simulations of tornadoes to sophisticated infographics of El Nino, weather visuals are seeing an explosion of innovation.

Data scientists, working hand in hand with meteorologists and designers, have new tools today to create some awe-inspiring visuals to tell us about the weather.

It’s never been so fun to watch a weather forecast …and so worthwhile. Now when forecasts say it’ll rain, it rains. The innovation explosion in weather visualization is being driven by never ending amounts of big data, new sources providing that data  – like sensors, super computers, ultra-high resolution satellite images, and now, augmented reality (AR).

The Weather Channel is well known for its visually stunning content on both TV and online. In May, they took it to a new level using AR and now create simulations of hail, lightning, even tornadoes, right inside their TV studios.

See Also: Technology rains down on California's drought

Nic Hatch is CEO of Ncam, the company in the UK that creates the enabling technology for the tornado simulation. Hatch says their “Ncam Live” system uses sensors that talk to one another at up to 250 frames per second as the camera shoots and transmits video. Says Hatch, “As The Weather Channel plays their tornado graphics, we’re tracking the motion in real-time. The result is that the presenter is free to move around stunning graphics sequences, and while both the camera and the presenter have full freedom of movement, Ncam keeps the graphics precisely fixed to a location.”

And how long before we have simulated weather in our living room? Says Hatch, “Looking with your own eyes, it will be a while. But looking through glasses or a mobile device, that’s relatively soon.” There are already products in this leading edge space such as the Microsoft HoloLens, Google’s Project Tango and Magic Leap.

The data engine behind The Weather Channel

Heat Wave Pattern

Weather Channel visuals during Europe’s recent record heat wave

Ian Miller leads a team of engineers called Weather Content Solutions – or the ‘data engine’ – at The Weather Company (which includes the brands The Weather Channel and Weather Underground). His team is the one that turns numerical data and simple text into amazing visuals.

He says it’s all about visualizing data in ways that match observations. Going beyond basic blue and red ‘blobs’ to representing weather fronts using light and shadows to better explain the physics of the weather, especially major weather events like El Nino, expected to hit many parts of the world hard this winter.

Weather on Demand

Miller, who’s been at The Weather Channel for 18 years, says they launched a new forecasting system just a year ago that takes advantage of our big data environment, including ‘weather on demand’. “Say you’re driving around the Bay Area and you tell your smart phone you need a forecast. Rather than go to some nearby generic forecast location, we now publish a forecast for your precise location 'on demand' using the newest forecast information. We can now capture even micro-climates that people experience …a big improvement over the generic area forecast.”

See Also: The Weather Channel embraces IoE, leads to new revenue streams

Miller continued, “As people become more mobile, there’s a need to be more specific to them. So our new system is all about personalizing the forecast for YOU. It’s not a forecast created at certain intervals and pulled off the shelf when you ask for it. This is an on-demand system. We have the ability to give you a forecast – in less than 15 milliseconds – when and where you need it. And we do that an average of 13 billion times a day.”

Weather Underground

Weather Underground goes a bit deeper into the ‘science’ of the weather, and is well known for many visualizations of weather data, including its popular infographics. It’s a community of about 120,000 weather enthusiasts who own personal weather stations installed at their home or business that measure everything from temperature and humidity to wind speed and barometric pressure.

Says Weather Underground designer Jerimiah Brown, “A big challenge for us as designers is to figure out what the questions are people have and contextualize the answers. For me, I listen a lot (to meteorologists) for what people want from weather data. Then we start working with software, like Adobe’s suite of products, to create the visuals."

Effects of low water levels

US Drought Map: 28% of the U.S is in D1 - D4 drought

California drought and food crisis

Weather Underground infographics all made from data

Visualizing California wildfire data

Jeff Shelton, a fire behavior specialist with the Orange County Fire Authority, knows California’s drought all too well. He works with meteorologists visualizing data for the state’s many wildfires. “We’re having a crazy busy fire season and are just getting started.”

He continues, “We fly over fires to access data every night using infrared technology, then input that data, along with weather information, to remote super computers. Hours later, crews know where the hot zones and exact fire perimeters exist. Before, someone would have to walk the ‘line’ and map it by hand.”

Visual showing which fires are the most intense

Visual showing which fires are the most intense

Indeed, innovation behind weather visualizations is moving faster than a wildfire. And some of the same tools used by weather scientists are ones used by Hollywood to film special effects.

Numerical weather data, inherently so invisible to the rest of us, is now being so well visualized that even if we never experience a tornado, we can know exactly what it feels like to be in one.

Let us know about your favorite places to go for weather visualizations and what you’ve seen that is cutting edge.  

Related Links:

Connecting weather to business profitability

Connecting windshield wipers to weather forecasts with The Weather Channel

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