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Aviation Weather

Whether you’re flying from New York to Denver or Boise to Kansas City – if you’re a pilot or a passenger – an airline meteorologist or an air traffic controller – you want to know what lies ahead. What will the weather be doing and how will it affect the flight, the airline schedules, and the air traffic patterns?

NOAA’s research labs have been working on aviation weather problems for a number of years as partners in the Federal Aviation Administration Aviation Weather Research Program (AWRP), working to make flying safer and smoother for everyone. The research is directed towards generating warnings, forecasts, and weather observations that are more accurate and easier to access. The labs have developed new weather models, radar products, and software, and transferred them to operational agencies. Here’s a look at what they’ve been doing:

Weather Models

Weather models such as the Rapid Update Cycle (RUC), developed at the Forecast Research Division of the Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) help improve the accuracy of forecasts for the aviation industry and other users. Maintained and run at NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Prediction, part of the National Weather Service, the RUC model uses the latest observations from commercial aircraft, satellites, radars, weather balloons and surface stations and produces new analyses and short-range forecasts on an hourly basis. These forecasts are then used by NOAA’s Aviation Weather Center to generate a variety of aviation hazard related forecasts of turbulence, icing and a new experimental forecast of thunderstorm activity, the RUC Convective Probability Forecast.

ESRL operates a web site that displays automated weather reports taken by commercial aircraft. This site is used by NOAA, U.S. military, and foreign government forecasters, and airline forecasters and dispatchers to support aviation operations.

FSL is also involved in evaluating a new aircraft-borne sensor system called TAMDAR [pdf], that will measure humidity, turbulence, and icing in addition to wind and temperature, primarily on aircraft operated by regional fleets. This information will fill in data-sparse regions below 25,000 feet and between major hub airports, primarily in the upper Midwest.

Forecast Products

NOAA’s Aviation Weather Center (AWC) operates a Federal Aviation Administration Test Bed (FAATB) for the Aviation Weather Research Program. NOAA’s research labs, along with their partners, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), Lincoln Laboratory, and the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), develop and transfer a variety of experimental forecast products to the Aviation Weather Center. These include the National Convective Weather Forecast (NCWF), the Current Icing Potential (CIP), the Forecast Icing Potential (FIP), the Graphical Turbulence Guidance (GTG), and other forecast information. These forecast products are then distributed to end users through the NWS telecommunications gateway and are also available to the public through the internet.

Improving Weather Information

Verification is essential for improving the weather information provided to forecasters and other users of aviation forecasts. One recent advance is the development and implementation of the Real-Time Verification System(RTVS), which is being developed with funds from the Aviation Weather Research Program at ESRL's Forecast Verification Branch, in collaboration with scientists at NCAR/RAP, and the AWC. The RTVS is a tool for assessing and tracking the quality of a variety of weather forecasts, such as icing, turbulence, ceiling and visibility, convection, precipitation, winds and others. New verification techniques have been developed for aviation forecasts and are being implemented into RTVS to insure that the most advanced techniques are used for evaluation. Moreover, the development of these advanced verification methods are leading to a better understanding and improvement in the aviation forecasts that run operationally at NOAA’s Aviation Weather Center.

Volanic eruption plumes and airborne ash clouds from North Pacific volcanoes are a serious hazard to aviation. About 200 flights per day fly across the North Pacific area where there are over 100 active volcanoes. FSL in collaboration with other state and federal agencies has developed and installed the Volcanic Ash Coordination Tool (VACT) on nine NWS systems, mostly in Alaska, to help mitigate the effects of volcanic ash on aviation operations in the North Pacific. This is another example of how NOAA Research transfers the technology developed in its labs to the National Weather Service and other agencies.

Aviation Digital Data Service (ADDS) is another new tool that provides the most complete source of aviation-related weather information to the airline industry and the public. Available on the Internet, ADDS provides state-of-the-art graphical forecasts for icing, turbulence and convection, along with advanced interactive methods for viewing those forecasts. ADDS is being developed jointly by ESRL, NCAR/RAP, and the NWS/AWC.

Remote Sensing

NOAA’s research labs have been at the forefront in developing new remote sensing tools and techniques. The National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) in Norman, OK, has been a leader in this effort. They developed the prototype Doppler radar in the 1970’s that led to the deployment of the NEXRAD system throughout the U.S. NSSL is also working on dual polarization techniques for rain and snow detection, and other radar software that improves nationwide detection and prediction of weather that is hazardous to aviation. Among the research projects that will benefit aviation users in the future is the new phased array radar, which promises to improve the current NEXRAD system. The new technology will gather storm information not currently available, and will be able to scan the lower atmosphere with more detail at lower elevations.


Icing is a weather hazard that can cause aviation disasters for small aircraft, particularly in winter. A division of the Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) has designed a new cloud radar system, the Ground-Based Remote Icing Detection System (GRIDS) to monitor clouds in the vicinity of airports and provide automated warnings of icing conditions aloft. Aircraft icing hazards due to super-cooled liquid droplets (SLD), are exceptionally challenging and difficult to forecast, and there is no operational weather surveillance technology currently available to detect this hazard. Supercooled water droplets are cloud droplets whose temperature is below freezing. These droplets convert to ice very quickly when they come in contact with other ice crystals in a cloud or a cool surface such as that of an airplane. During spring 2004, the Environmental Technology Laboratory (now ESRL) participated in a project to test the remote sensing of these super-cooled droplets, WISP-04, or the 2004 Winter Icing and Storms Project. This was an effort to better understand how hazardous in-flight icing conditions form within clouds, and how scientists can remotely detect these conditions. Results are still being assessed.

ESRL is also involved in the simulation and design of a microwave satellite sensor capable of providing 15 minute imagery of clouds and precipitation fields over nearly a full hemisphere. The imagery would be complementary to that of the NOAA GOES satellite infrared sensors, which provide cloud top temperatures, by displaying weather activity beneath cloud tops, and thus be valuable for flight routing and in-flight hazard detection.

Infrasonics is the study of sound below the range of human hearing. The low frequency sounds are produced by a variety of geophysical processes including severe weather, volcanic activity, avalanches, and turbulence, and by some man-made sources such as aircraft. An infrasonic network installed by ESRL is being tested for the potential of using infrasound to aid in the detection of severe storms and turbulence aloft.


A large ash plume erupts froma volcano

Volcanic eruptions and ash clouds pose serious hazards to aviation.


Weather models like the RUC provide icing, turbulence and other weather hazard information to aviation forecasters. (larger image)


US map indicating areas of potential icing

The Aviation Digital Data Service (ADDS) provides aviation-related weather information such as icing (above, larger image) and turbulence (below, larger image) over the Internet.

US map indicating areas of potential turbulence


NOAA Research programs that develop weather aviation products

checkmarkEarth System Research Laboratory (ESRL)
checkmarkNational Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL)

NOAA operational groups

checkmarkAviation Weather Center
checkmarkEnvironmental Modeling Center (EMC)
checkmarkNational Weather Service forecast offices



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