Rob Black Wins North American Weather-Forecasting Competition for Record-Setting Second Time
Mild-mannered, unassuming, even shy. That’s how Robert Black, an associate professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, is often described. But go to his office and ask him about the trophies arrayed on top of his bookshelf, and his face lights up. And he will regale you with the nuances of the WxChallenge.
It’s the annual collegiate tournament of weather forecasting. At the conclusion of the 2015-16 WxChallenge last spring, Black made history by being the only person in the competition’s history to win the individual championship for a second time, outperforming more than 1,000 competitors.
“This win is special because it came down to the final day of the last station,” Black says. “It’s a bit like a baseball pennant race: You work hard for the individual victories all year, and those victories get you all the way to the last game, sometimes down to the last inning, before you know that you’ve succeeded.” Black slid into the WxChallenge home plate this year, just barely safe.
The WxChallenge is a competition among teams and individuals in atmospheric science or meteorology academic programs in the U.S. and Canada. Participants forecast daily weather conditions at 10 different stations, usually located at airports, over the course of an academic year. They forecast the high and low temperatures, maximum wind speed, and amount of precipitation for the next day.
The challenge aims to foster forecasting excellence and give students practical experience in short-term forecasting. Participants are encouraged to learn as much as possible about each station through the detailed study of weather maps, past weather information, prior model performance, and geographic features that may affect local weather.
Modern weather forecasting relies heavily on computer models, but forecasts based on those models often display considerable variability, Black says. WxChallenge emphasizes how critical it is to maintain the human element of forecasting.
“The idea is to provide added value to forecasting that can be lost in relying solely on computer model predictions,” Black says. “These models are imperfect and can’t make use of physical knowledge of the atmosphere in ways that a human can.”
Black, whose research focuses on large-scale weather and climate variations, has competed in the WxChallenge since it began, in 2006. He won his first individual championship in 2008.
Before making a forecast, “there’s a whole process that I go through,” Black says. “I learn about the physical geography of the station—whether it’s on the side of a mountain or on the coast or whether it has some other location-specific properties. And because many of these stations have been in operation for quite some time, there is a great deal of past weather data I can examine as well.”
Forecasts are compared to weather station measurements and scored in terms of error points, based on how close each forecasted value is to the actual value. They are then ranked in relation to the national consensus forecast, which itself is scored by error points based on proximity to the observed value.
Having competed now for 10 years, Black shows no signs of retiring from the WxChallenge and is now leading a WxChallenge seminar series at Tech.
The competition is fulfilling in many ways, he says. For example, after forecasts have been submitted, competitors can look at everyone else’s forecasts and compare.
“I have a colleague at SUNY Albany—Professor Brian Tang, another past champion—whose forecasts will occasionally be exactly the same as mine, although we’re 1,000 miles away from each other,” Black says. “Everyone uses the same information differently, and everyone has their own process for forecasting. So I find it very interesting that, in certain instances, we come up with exactly the same forecast, even though this forecast may differ substantially from the national consensus.”
In addition to being individual champion twice, Black holds another WxChallenge distinction: His winning score in 2008 has been the best since the challenge’s inception. Black laughs, because his winning score for his second championship happens to be the lowest-ever winning score. As all champions know, however, all you need to win is to be a little better than everybody else.
The individual championship trophy gets to reside in the champion’s home institution. Until a new winner emerges, the trophy will be displayed at Tech. Given Black’s brilliance at this game, however, the trophy could stay a while or come and go for several years.
Science Communications Intern
College of Sciences
- Workflow Status: Published
- Created By: Matt Barr
- Created: 10/24/2016
- Modified By: Will Rusk
- Modified: 10/31/2016