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Better Tools to Avoid Thunderstorms

June 7, 2022

Summertime means thunderstorms, and National Weather Service aviation forecasters are continually working to refine NWS services and products to help business aircraft operators navigate through what has already been a particularly active storm season.

Perhaps the most important thunderstorm tool for pilots is the Traffic Flow Management Convective Forecast (TCF). Published by the NWS Aviation Weather Center (AWC), the TCF offers a graphical representation of expected sparse and medium coverage, based on specific criteria of coverage, intensity and cloud-echo top height.

“This is a collaborative, human-in-the-loop product that builds on the initial forecast model,” said John Kosak, CAM, program manager for weather at NBAA Air Traffic Services, located at the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center (ATCSCC) in Warrenton, VA. “AWC meteorologists collaborate with Center Weather Service Unit personnel and other meteorologists from around the country to develop and refine the TCF.”

Over the past year, the TCF has been improved through replacement of the short-range ensemble forecast (SREF) with the high-resolution ensemble forecast (HREF), which in turn has helped reduce instances of missed convective activity in the initial automated forecast model.

“This has greatly improved that ‘first-guess’ forecast,” explained David Bieger, national aviation meteorologist-in-charge at the ATCSCC, “and provided a much better starting point from which forecasters can then collaborate and refine the product.”

Another valuable tool for pilots is the Graphical Forecast for Aviation (GFA). While not as detailed as the TCF, the GFA offers a complete picture of weather that may affect flight operations across the Continental United States, Alaska and Hawaii, the Gulf of Mexico and portions of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

“Coverage in the GFA is not one-for-one with the TCF in terms of coverage criteria, but it’s close,” Bieger said. Recently, the GFA was expanded to include the Caribbean, with coverage of additional regions planned for the near future.

Ceiling and visibility forecast models over the Western U.S. will also soon improve as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s GOES-18 satellite moves into position. Launched in March, the satellite will replace GOES-17, which suffered a failure that affected infrared sensor channels used to measure cloud coverage.

“The imaging sensors and lightning mapper on this [new] satellite significantly aid in convective forecasting and will feed into AWC guidance,” Bieger said. “In addition to improved ceiling and visibility forecasting across the West, it will also improve icing and turbulence forecasting.”

Later this summer, new supercomputers will be used to process forecast models, which Bieger noted will improve both operational and developmental efforts and reduce the number of missed model runs and data outages.

“These are just a few of the many ways aviation weather professionals are working to ensure pilots have the highest-quality information available to them for weather-related flight planning,” Kosak concluded. “There is a wealth of resources available now, with new products and refinements to existing services in the pipeline.”

Review the Traffic Flow Management Convective Forecast.

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