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Waves and Sea Ice and Hurricanes, OH MY!

Published on Thursday, October 31, 2019

Waves and Sea Ice and Hurricanes, OH MY!

By: Alison Agather,
Knauss Fellow,
Ocean Prediction Center,
National Weather Service

In 1912, over 1,500 people lost their lives when the RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg and sank. But what does the Titanic have to do with my fellowship role in the National Weather Service’s Ocean Prediction Center?


Though you may not think of the National Weather Service as playing an important role in preventing future disasters similar to the Titanic, during my fellowship, I learned the Ocean Prediction Center is key to the effort. For example, after the Titanic sank, the International Maritime Organization set standards to keep mariners safe, including the improvement of weather forecasting. To share responsibility, the global ocean was divided into oceanographic meteorological areas and assigned to various nations. Each country responsible for an area of the ocean is required to transmit weather forecasts to mariners twice every day. Forecasts keep mariners safe by warning sailors about wind, waves, storms, hurricanes, sea ice, and/or any other information navigators need to reach their destination safely.


The colorful puzzle pieces above are the oceanographic meteorological areas, or metareas. Metareas divvy up weather forecasting responsibilities among many nations. Photo:


The importance of weather forecasts and sea ice information is growing, especially as traffic in high latitude regions increases. Thankfully, an international group of mariners, meteorologists, and ice services gather annually to discuss advancements in ice charting. As part of my work with the Ocean Prediction Center, I attended the 20th meeting of the International Ice Charting Working Group in Copenhagen, Denmark. The Working Group Meeting was an opportunity to share advancements in forecasting and ice detection capabilities amongst the world’s experts.


The collaboration required to solve an international and difficult issue was wonderful to witness and experience. Each nation had their own reasons for being there and working towards improved sea ice charts, including: a desire to improve safety, livelihood of local communities, awareness and national security, and improve climate models.


The 20th meeting of the International Ice Charting Working Group attendees gather for a photo.


I began my Fellowship knowing almost nothing about marine weather. In fact, my limited experience with marine weather came from when I went to sea as a graduate student. Throughout my studies, I sailed in the Mediterranean Sea, coastal North Atlantic waters, and aboard an icebreaker in the Arctic Ocean. I experienced marine weather firsthand, including calm waters, 20 foot seas, altered cruise tracks due to hurricane development, and the jarring backing and ramming required to break sea ice.


All in all, these experiences have taught me to appreciate timely and accurate weather forecasts, which mariners depend on to keep their crew and passengers safe. Regardless of ship size, origin, or destination, it is our goal to get all ships to port safely. Unfortunately, in the recent past, a ship sank when it sailed into a hurricane. Such concerns keep marine forecasters and the Ocean Prediction Center busy.


Earlier this fall I visited the Maritime Museum of Denmark, which highlighted improvements in maritime safety.


I probably will not be able to interpret a weather map by the end of my fellowship, but I can communicate the need and importance of timely weather forecasts. And now, when I see my local weather report, I appreciate the work done by both the Ocean Prediction Center, and at large, that of the National Weather Service. I have also learned that weather is an issue that affects people at the local, national, and international level, and needs collaboration and policy to address impacts at all scales.

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