Wednesday, April 8, 2009

UGA weather forecasting team wins national honors

A top-three finish in the national team rankings. Multiple regular-season and post-season individual honors. It sounds like another one of UGA’s stellar athletics teams.

Instead, it’s UGA atmospheric science students and their faculty, competing in the national weather forecasting contest known as WxChallenge. What’s more, this is only UGA’s second year to compete in the contest.

UGA’s team just finished the regular season in third place. Geography department faculty team member John Knox and graduate student Michael Carter qualified for the post-season individual tournament, which began April 6.

Knox assembled the UGA WxChallenge team in fall 2007 as a way to help teach undergraduates how to forecast the weather.

“Geography Professor Tom Mote, who helped found the UGA atmospheric science program in 2000 and who is the most experienced forecaster on our faculty, had conducted his own forecasting contests for many years,” said Knox. “He was on a Fulbright to Brazil, I was pinch-hitting for him in the senior-level forecasting class last spring, and I was nervous. So, I decided to participate in the national contest for the first time as a way to bone up on my teaching assignment. I thought some students might want to do it, too.”

Team members are: geography faculty members Knox and Marshall Shepherd; graduate student Carter; and undergraduates Emily Wilson of Cumming, Jason Muhlbauer of Kennesaw, Matt Daniel of Social Circle, Brent Sinclair of Dacula, Clayton Hunt of Athens, Kelly Keene of Warner Robins, Mary Mays of Savannah, Kelly Keene of Warner Robins, Andrew Phillips of Woodstock, Jonathan Tarantino of Lilburn, Myron Petro of Dacula, Haley Gowen of Folkston and Laura Paulik of Hinsdale, Ill. The team also includes “redshirt freshmen” Laura Beth Wrenn of Watkinsville and Sarah Summers of Kennesaw, whose scores do not count toward the cumulative team score.

WxChallenge is managed by research staff at the University of Oklahoma, famed for its tornado research. The contest is open to all undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students, as well as higher-education faculty, staff and alumni. It consists of making next-day forecasts of high and low temperatures, maximum sustained wind and precipitation amounts for a series of 10 U.S. cities during September through April. Forecasts are scored versus the national average forecast and can be compared to forecasts made by the National Weather Service and the best computer forecast models of the atmosphere. The best human forecasters in the contest routinely outperform both the computer models and the NWS.

About 50 institutions in the United States and Canada, consisting of more than 1,500 individual forecasters, compete every year for the team crown. Analogous to the NCAA basketball tournament, the top 64 individual forecasters go on to the “big dance” and compete in postseason brackets leading an individual winner to the top.

One of those individuals is usually UGA graduate student Michael Carter of Louisville, Miss., who has competed in the WxChallenge individual tournament both at UGA.

“Every year, Mississippi State and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology duke it out for number 1,” said Carter. “MIT always seems to win on the last day of the regular season.” Could the fledgling UGA team hope to compete with the big boys in just its sophomore season in 2008-09?

“Our students said, yes we can,” according Knox. At the students’ suggestion, a forecasting seminar class was created in which forecasts are discussed and debated. During the spring semester, the seminar is meeting until 7 p.m. four nights a week.

The extra effort paid off for the team and for Gowen and Wrenn, both of whom won trophies for being the best undergraduate forecasters in the nation for one of the cities. For the season, Knox, Carter and four other team members (Wilson, Muhlbauer, Daniel and Sinclair) all placed in the top 100 individually to go along with their third-place team finish.

While the UGA team would like to be number one, they’re pleased with their performance this year.

“We’re on the podium,” said Andrew Phillips of Woodstock, referring to the third-place bronze medal at the Olympics. “And we beat Tech!”

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