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Director's Corner: Community Modeling and the Transition from Research to Operations and Operations to Research

Summer 2020

This is an exciting era in Earth system prediction research and operational forecasting. Researchers are gaining access to a powerful set of tools that are deployed or soon to be used to produce the nation’s weather forecasts, climate outlooks, and more. Operational forecasters are gaining more direct access to the latest breakthroughs and innovations in modeling and prediction research. Here’s why I am so enthusiastic.

First, an anecdote. When I was studying for the PhD, my advisor, Kikuro Miyakoda, who led our group at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL), was developing the “E-physics” experimental subgrid physical parameterization in a global atmospheric model. After a successful demonstration predicting the extreme winter of January 1977 (Miyakoda et al. 1983), the E-physics parameterization transitioned in 1985 from research to operations (R2O) in the Medium Range Forecast (MRF) model at the National Meteorological Center (NMC), thanks to the painstaking collaborative effort by GFDL and NMC scientists. Shortly after joining Shukla’s group at the University of Maryland, they signed an MOU with Bill Bonner and John Brown of NMC to use the MRF for predictability research. With the support of NMC scientists including Joe Gerrity, Joe Sela, Bob Kistler and Glenn White, we ran the model on the NMC computer and then transferred the JCL, Fortran code, and test data on 9-track tape to computers outside NOAA. That transition from operations to research (O2R), without documentation and lots of operations-specific arcana, required a heroic effort from several members of our group, notably Larry Marx and Ed Schnieder, and led to the first publication using MRF by a university group (Kinter et al. 1988).   

If NOAA makes wise, balanced investments, the US will regain the leadership role in numerical weather and climate prediction worldwide. 

Fast forward 30+ years to the current generation of R2O and O2R. Amazingly, the paradigm of the 1980s – special arrangements between groups, heroic efforts to port undocumented code, etc. – were still in force until just a few years ago. However, in 2016, a paradigm shift occurred when NOAA adopted a fresh, unified strategy for modeling. This new way of doing business is a bold experiment to conduct research and development in a truly collaborative way, within the constraints imposed by operational imperatives and marching to the cadence of public releases and operational implementations. The strategy is unified, both because a single modeling platform is envisioned for all forecast applications and because we have formed a single collaborative community to address the scientific, technical and operational challenges. Engaged and willing participants from inside and outside NOAA are thinking strategically about R2O with a 3-5 year vision and 1 to 2-year goals. The Earth Prediction Innovation Center is being conceived to provide the desperately needed O2R community support for codes and workflows to enable experimentation with the operational codes of tomorrow and lower the barriers to R2O transition. 

Moving forward, NOAA has an opportunity to build upon this foundation by making critical investments in scientific research, dedicated high-performance computing for research and development, and software and user support. If NOAA makes wise, balanced investments, the US will regain the leadership role in numerical weather and climate prediction worldwide. 

Jim Kinter
Contributed by Jim Kinter, George Mason University