BOM looks to Java to keep eye on brewing storms

With Cyclone Larry initially, and now Monica taking a shining to Australia, it is not just the coast of far north Queensland that has taken a pounding in the past month. A Java software application developed by the Bureau of Meteorology to track cyclone direction and intensity has also been hit hard -- by forecasters, to provide critical information to help keep lives safe.

Called the Tropical Cyclone Module (TC Module), it does nearly all the tropical cyclone specific tasks required by weather forecasters.

"It's a tool that they drive quite hard when a cyclone is around," said Andrew Donaldson, the main TC Module developer in the Communications and Computing Systems branch of the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM).

The module was developed to provide weather forecasters with better data manipulation and visualisation tools and the ability to generate graphical products as well as the more traditional text products.

"We needed to support the forecast process better, and make it easy for them to generate new types of products quickly," said Donaldson.

A Bureau 'product' can be anything from a warning, a forecast, current observations (for example temperature and humidity) to a raw dataset. "Essentially it is something we generate and package for external use -- for example the general public, the media and emergency services."

When a cyclone is approaching the coast, there are up to nine products sent within an hour, he said.

To generate this product, the system firstly imports cyclone tracks from computer simulations from the Bureau's supercomputer and international computer models then displays the results. It allows the forecasters to enter and maintain tracks based on radar or satellite data.

The forecaster can check their data against observations made on the ground, compare forecasts to each other and apply statistical methods to generate a most likely forecast track -- an estimate of the cyclone's future movement and intensity.

When the forecaster is finished editing, the text and graphical output products are generated.

The popularity of their output is evidenced by the fact that the tropical cyclone graphical forecast product for Cyclone Larry was viewed 1.8 million times on the cyclones recent visit to the North Queensland town of Innisfail.

Donaldson said TC Module started as a technology prototype back in 2000, with the BOM using its own interpretation of extreme programming techniques. Now it is written in Java 1.4 and uses various libraries including Java 3D, VisAD, JDBC, JDOM, JavaHelp and others that were developed in-house.

"We have had only the most trivial of issues moving between Linux and Windows, so Java has worked very well for us," he said.

Donaldson said the forecasting offices typically use Linux workstations, with the servers mid-range Unix machines, although that is likely to change over time. The cyclone information is stored in replicated Oracle databases.

Outside of the critical times, forecasters can use TC Module to perform statistics on a season's forecasts to see how accurate the BOM's forecasts were, or the components of them, to allow it to improve the techniques.

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