Big data helps predict severe weather

Severe weather endangers millions of people every year. Now, new research has harnessed big data to help predict these threats and save lives.  

Severe weather endangers millions of people and causes costly damage every year. However, big data could save lives and resources by facilitating earlier recognition of potential threats.

The new research approach, which was developed by a team at Penn State University and AccuWeather, focuses on identifying bow echoes, a phenomenon associated with violent winds, in radar images.

According to the research team, vision and image analysis methods can help meteorologists look at things they don’t have the time for. In the case of bow echoes, this automatic detection would be vital to earlier recognition of severe weather.

“It was inevitable for meteorology to combine big data, computer vision, and data mining algorithms to seek faster, more robust and accurate results,” commented researcher Mohammed Mahdi Kamani in a statement.

A bow echo is the part that moves faster than the other in a line of thunderstorms, and is so named because once the weather conditions have fully formed, it resembles a bow.

Meteorologist Stephen Wistar explained: “It’s important because that’s where you are likely to get serious damage, where trees will come down and roofs get blown off.”

However, when the conditions are just beginning to form, it can be easy for forecasters to overlook. To combat this, the research focused on automating the detection of bow echoes. By drawing on vast historical data, bow echoes can be automatically identified the instant they begin to form. Such data allows meteorologists to make decisions quicker and with better accuracy.

By continually monitoring radar data, the new algorithm can scan the entire United States and provide alerts whenever and wherever a bow echo is beginning. During times of active severe weather, it can provide instant notifications of the development.

With the detection algorithm in place, the researchers hope to one day forecast bow echoes before they even form. “The end goal is to have more time to alert people to evacuate or be ready for the straight line winds,” explained Kamani.

Envisioning the future of meteorology, the researchers see endless potential for the application of big visual data.

Photo credit: Javier Ruiz77/ CC BY 2.0

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