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Predicting Weather

Elucidates the work of meteorologists who predict weather using data entered into mathematical models run on computers.

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Predicting Weather

Does a picnic bring rain?

Weather forecasts are better than they ever have been. According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a 5-day weather forecast today is as reliable as a 2-day forecast was 20 years ago. Now there's no excuse to be rained out on a picnic!

Numerical Weather Prediction

The most accurate weather forecasts are made by advanced computers, with analysis and interpretation added by experienced meteorologists. These computers have up-to-date mathematical models that can use much more data and make many more calculations than would ever be possible by scientists working with just maps and calculators. Meteorologists can use these results to give much more accurate weather forecasts and climate predictions.

In Numerical Weather Prediction (NWP), atmospheric data from many sources are plugged into supercomputers running complex mathematical models (Figure below). The models then calculate what will happen over time at various altitudes for a grid of evenly spaced locations. The grid points are usually between 10 and 200 kilometers apart. Using the results calculated by the model, the program projects weather further into the future. It then uses these results to project the weather still further into the future, as far as the meteorologists want to go. Once a forecast is made, it is broadcast by satellites to more than 1,000 sites around the world.

Map of a weather forecast

A weather forecast using numerical weather prediction.

NWP produces the most accurate weather forecasts, but as anyone knows, even the best forecasts are not always right.

Weather prediction is extremely valuable for reducing property damage and even fatalities. If the proposed track of a hurricane can be predicted, people can try to secure their property and then evacuate (Figure below).

Weather prediction for Hurricane Rita

By predicting Hurricane Rita’s path, it is likely that lives were saved.


  • Meteorologists use computers to crank data through mathematical models to forecast the weather.
  • Numerical weather prediction calculates what will happen to conditions horizontally and vertically over an area.
  • Weather forecasts can go further into the future than ever.


  1. What is numerical weather prediction?
  2. Even with numerical weather prediction, meteorologists have a difficult time predicting the path of a hurricane more than a day or two into the future. Why?
  3. One popular online weather prediction site goes 10 days out and another goes 15 days out. Why the discrepancy?

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Use this resource to answer the questions that follow.

  1. Explain how scientists monitor weather above Earth.
  2. What does GIFTS stand for?
  3. What does GIFTS do?
  4. How will GIFTS be better than weather balloons?
  5. How does gifts collect so much data?
  6. What is remote sensing?
  7. How does GIFTS sense water vapor?
  8. What sort of predictions about hurricanes will scientists be able to make with GIFTS?
  9. What winds will GIFTS be able to sense?

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