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Weather Wing Targets Elsa

3d simulation of a hurricane from above.

3d simulation of a hurricane from above.

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. --

The 557th Weather Wing, the Air Force’s only wing of its kind, marshalled significant capabilities to track and predict the behavior of Hurricane Elsa as it formed in the Atlantic Ocean.

Even before the system strengthened into a named storm, the wing had armed commanders in the Southeastern United States with forecasts of when and where the storm might strike, as well as possible impacts to operations.

The wing accelerated change ahead of the 2021 hurricane season to ensure commanders at all echelons have access to the information they need for decision superiority. 

Col. Patrick Williams, 557th WW commander, wants decision makers to know that the 557 WW innovatively applies science to missions, they partner with other Air Force wings and Space Force deltas through their organic weather units to safeguard DOD assets and provide an asymmetric advantage by staying ahead of environmental threats.

Advanced capabilities across the weather wing include enhanced modeling, visualization, and application techniques that enable commanders and their teams to make informed decisions about impacts to their bases and missions. 

“In everything it does, the 557 WW aims to give commanders decision advantage in order to produce operational outcomes favorable to the U.S. and its allies,” said Chris Finnigsmier, 557 WW technical director. 

Specific to tropical forecasting, the wing targets Commanders across U.S. Northern Command, U.S. Southern Command and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, whom manage the aftermath of these storms. 

“The 557 WW gives a level of detail found nowhere else,” Finnigsmier said. “Commanders need not guess as to what their base and people may face because the weather wing identifies the expected time of impact at their locations, and if they are a flying wing, their weapon systems and their runway.”

One new capability is the wing’s Tropical Cyclone Tracker, a computer-generated prediction created in-house by using the 16th Weather Squadron’s Air Force Weather Ensemble Processing System. The response to the new tracker has been positive not only from across the Air Force, but also outside the service. The Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii said that the TC Tracker will significantly benefit their operational tropical cyclone predictions moving forward.  

A second advancement is wind velocity prediction within the 16th WS Point Ensemble Probability bulletins which provides aircraft operators with crosswind data.

“A PEP bulletin is a product designed to provide the warfighter statistical probability of operationally significant thresholds for a single location,” said Tech. Sgt. Ian Lorenz, 16th WS data science and analytics flight chief. “For example, if a mission is impacted by winds greater than 35 knots, we are able to find when that will happen.”

The third new capability is what the unit refers to internally as the 5-day smear. It essentially, helps forecasters identify a potential for a storm before it actually forms, to include some indication of the strength. 

“[It] is a product that displays the probability of winds . . . on a global scale as an early warning to focus attention on areas where tropical cyclone formation is likely in the long term, roughly 5-16 days,” said Evan Kuchera, 16th WS meteorology supervisor.

While a track forecast shows where the individual tropical cyclone could go in the world, it does not give any indication on how intense the storm may be. However, the 5-day smear includes the probability of significant wind speeds, which shows how areas could be impacted by the event and the potential severity before the storm has formed. According to Evan Kuchera this product predicted tropical cyclone conditions near the Philippines more than 10 days before typhoon Goni struck and caused $1.5 billion in damage.

All of these advancements are a direct response to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s direction to support installation commanders’ posture for hurricane season.

 “So far this season, two Tropical Storms, Claudette and Elsa, provided a real-time validation on refined products, processes and procedures,” said Lt. Col. James Roberts, 26th OWS commander. “We take pride in ensuring the most accurate forecasts are available for anyone that requires them before, during, and after a storm.”

The 26th Operational Weather Squadron is the lead weather unit providing decision quality support to installation leaders in the path of an impending storms in the Atlantic Basin. Working in concert with embedded weather units, they amass the 16th WS products to operationalize the provided data. 

“[We have] made some drastic changes in supporting our DOD customers to include new watches and warnings which better define tropical storm and hurricane impacts on missions and installations,” Roberts said. “To further assist senior leaders and decision makers at installations without imbedded weather personnel, 26th OWS forecasters produce videos at least once every 24 hours, and more frequently if the storm is rapidly developing or shifting its track.

“Part of our core responsibilities deal with predicting environmental threats as far in advance as possible to give decision makers more time for preparations,” Col. John Roberts said. “It is a process we continually refine and strive to innovate. We do these things to protect U.S. and Allied forces and their families and to contribute to mission success.”