How much more accurate can a weather forecast get?

 - March 28, 2007, 6:16 AM

Predicting the weather is a little like trying to pick up Jell-O before it sets. There are a lot of molecules up there, all interacting in less than predictable ways. It is a little surprising, then, that the head of one of the world’s foremost weather-data specialists says forecast accuracy is about to see vast improvements over and above what today’s computer modeling is capable of generating.

“Forecasts have been improving every year, but thanks to strides that have been made recently they are on the verge of getting much better,” said Mark Gildersleeve, president of Weather Services International in Andover, Mass., a company known to pilots of all stripes for the last 25 years simply as WSI.

Within 24 months, Gildersleeve said, meteorologists will be able to develop forecasts that are not only more likely to be correct, but also more accurate further into the future. The reason has to do with the effort that is currently under way to fine-tune computer modeling to match the latest meteorological research, he said.

“People have always thought of the weather as the unknowable, but we are showing that it is possible to provide increasingly accurate degrees of confidence about what the weather will be tomorrow, next week or even three months from now,” he said. “When pilots look at forecasts today compared with two years from now, they will see a difference.”

Gildersleeve makes this prediction while sitting in a corner conference room of WSI’s sprawling new headquarters about a half-hour drive north of Boston. He is wearing a comfortable-looking sweater and pair of corduroys. Outside, a powerful storm is bearing down on the Northeast, piling several inches of snow on the cars in the parking lot in front of the building and turning the roads leading to Route 93 to a dirty, slushy mess.

All morning WSI meteorologists hunkered in a data center down the hall have been keeping a watchful eye on the fast-moving weather system. Ice accumulation threatens to bring down power lines in central Pennsylvania. Flash flooding is reported farther to the south, where heavy rain is sweeping eastward. Across the country, the snow, ice, wind and rain are setting off a crescendo of flight delays as airports in the East become bogged down by the reduced visibility–and airports everywhere else try to cope as best they can.

Top Commercial Weather Provider

Each of these events touches WSI’s customers in different ways. Whether it is the FAA Command Center in Herndon, Va., or power companies in the South or commodity traders on Wall Street, WSI’s weather forecasts serve as a lifeline to the world.

The company was among the first to computerize raw weather data from the National Weather Service and deliver it in custom formats to its customers. Today WSI is the No. 1 seller of meteorological data to television networks, utility companies and aviation users in the U.S.

Several local TV stations receive their weather forecasts straight from WSI. The Fox News Channel has gone so far as to set up a camera at the WSI headquarters building for live shots from the “Fox News Weather Center,” where it interviews WSI meteorologists during major storms. Power companies and energy traders rely on WSI’s forecasts for everything from predicting where a hurricane will make landfall to the number of days in, say, July, that the temperature will be above 85 degrees.

Retailers and other businesses are using the data as well. For example, consumption of soft drinks rises along a steady curve as the temperature goes higher, but then flattens out at about 80 degrees and above. Statisticians can use the information to decide where they’ll need to ship the most Pepsi this summer.

This helps explain why WSI’s president is not a meteorologist, but an economist. Gildersleeve joined the company in 1991 after nearly two decades at Wang Labs and then left for a time in the late 1990s to help with a number of startup ventures for WSI’s parent company, Landmark Communications (also owner of The Weather Channel). Since his return, WSI’s revenue has reached about $50 million a year, with much of the growth resulting from the early success of its InFlight cockpit weather offering, Gildersleeve said.

Counting the money WSI makes from its Pilotbrief Vector (and new Pilotbrief Pro) weather stations used by corporate flight departments and FBOs and Pilotbrief Online service launched recently, as well as contracts it has with the FAA, airlines and others, aviation accounts for about a third of the company’s revenue, he added.

WSI was able to negotiate an attractive deal on its new headquarters after the Internet startup company that built it was forced to downsize. The building cost about the same as the old one, but it is much larger and includes the type of infrastructure that most would expect from a Web-hosting company.

Throughout the building T3 data lines, backup generators and redundant communication systems ensure that WSI remains connected to the outside world. On the roof there are 14 satellite dishes, in addition to half a dozen larger ones next to the building, all receiving and beaming a constant stream of data. WSI has about 165 employees at its Andover headquarters, half of them meteorologists. Another 40 or so employees are based at WSI’s international headquarters in Birmingham, England.

On the Ground and in the Air

WSI has shipped about 1,000 InFlight units so far, with the majority flying in turboprops and business jets, according to the company. The InFlight airborne hardware sells for about $5,000 and the monthly subscription fee is $49.95. Buyers can add graphical TFRs and winds/temperatures aloft for a flat fee of $995 per year. The system interfaces with a variety of cockpit displays, including the Garmin AT MX20, L3 iLinc, Universal UCD, Chelton FlightLogic EFIS, CMC CT-1000, as well as other electronic flight bag computers and pocket PCs.

Meanwhile, Pilotbrief Online, WSI’s PC-based aviation weather service, has been accepted by the FAA as a source for pilot preflight briefings. Approved under the Qualified Internet Communications Program (QICP), the WSI service can be accessed from any computer with an Internet connection. It is similar to the weather-data offerings from WSI that are familiar sights in briefing rooms at FBOs across the U.S., giving pilots quick access to high-resolution satellite and radar weather maps.

Intended for use primarily by corporate flight departments, the service costs $79.95 per month, and $9.95 a month for each additional user. Those who already own a Pilotbrief Pro stand-alone system can subscribe to the online service for $19.95 a month, and $9.95 for each extra user.

WSI pointed out that QICP does not necessarily mean the same thing as a legal briefing (in fact, according to the FAA there is no such thing as a legal briefing, per se), but it does ensure the quality of communication sufficient for meeting FAR 91.103, which deals with pilot preflight requirements.

In other recent news from WSI, the company introduced Pilotbrief Pro at the NBAA Convention last fall as the follow-on to the company’s successful Pilotbrief Vector system. Built around a user-friendly interface, Pilotbrief Pro allows pilots to enter their departure and destination airports; routes via jetways, victor airways or VOR to VOR; and altitude information into the My Briefing screen. The system displays NOWrad mosaic weather imagery along the route down to a one-kilometer, five-minute resolution that provides the most accurate and detailed weather radar information available from any provider, according to WSI.

Other weather information available along the route includes convective sigmets, turbulence, icing and IFR airmets. WSI Pilotbrief Pro can also layer airspace boundaries, TFRs and other airspace information on top of the weather and route information, providing the user with a complete picture on the system’s computer monitor, on which route decisions can be made.

Price for the Pilotbrief Pro system is $239 per month, in addition to a $500 initialization fee and $125 to cover the cost of shipping. The system includes a Dell PC, keyboard, flat-screen monitor, data processor and dish antenna. Additional services can be added for extra cost on an á la carte basis. The basic service includes complete briefings and NOWrad imagery, among other services.

WSI in 1989 introduced the NOWrad concept for mosaic nexrad images, a process whereby the raw radar feeds from the National Weather Service are blended and decluttered to provide what appears to the end user as a single radar picture, even though it is a puzzle made up of many different radar sites.

Computer algorithms clean up the images, after which specialists at the WSI command center double check the raw radar feeds to make sure individual stations have not dropped out and natural phenomena such as sun interference aren’t creating false echoes or disturbing radar signals. WSI personnel have only 15 minutes to receive radar data, analyze it, fix it if necessary and send it back out to customers. The company claims it is the only weather data provider to use human expertise to quality check radar imagery before it is released.