America's Weatherman in Iraq

CentCom's Dave Whalen says it's not the increasingly brutal heat in Baghdad that worries him. It's the possibility of sandstorms

Well before those nasty sandstorms roared through the Persian Gulf region as the U.S. war against Iraq began heating up, Dave Whalen saw them coming. Using sophisticated meteorological forecasting tools called numerical weather-prediction models, Whalen, the senior weather officer at Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar, predicted the storms' arrival five days ahead of time.

That gave coalition forces plenty of time to plan for the rough weather. It also highlighted the significant advances in weather technology made since the first Gulf War. "That one was basically spot-on from five days out," Whalen says, before conceding: "I would like to say that happens all the time, but I can't."

Whalen, a 10-year veteran of the Navy's weather oceanography community, oversees the forecast from his perch in the secretive nerve center at the Joint Operations Center. With the hottest time of the year in Baghdad rapidly approaching, Whalen's calls are about to become even more crucial. On Apr. 4, he spoke to BusinessWeek's Laura Cohn at CentCom about his job, how the troops will cope with the baking heat, and just how hot it will get in Baghdad in the coming weeks. Following are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: How do you create your forecasts?


We use numerical weather-prediction models, called NWPs. They use very high-tech computer centers where mathematicians, meteorologists, and physicists apply programs. These models will take in a lot of observed weather data from satellites and from stations on the ground. They take in all this data, apply physics to it, and math, and crunch out forecasts.

Usually we don't go more than 120 hours out, five days out, but we have some long-range forecasting capability. The further you go out, the less reliable it is.

Q: How do you make sure your forecasts are as reliable as possible?


We have an online chat. The chat involves folks from throughout this theater -- people who are actually taking observations of what's happening with the real weather. Everyone chips in on what they want to say. There are usually at least 50 in the theater monitoring it.

The one theme we have to have is one theater, one forecast. No two forecasters will make the exact same forecast. If you have too many people providing a forecast for the same region or spot, you're going to get variants, and that's not good.

Q: Why is consistency so important?


You don't want an Air Force commander, an Army commander, and the unified commander General [Tommy] Franks getting different opinions on what the forecast is and how it will impact operations. As a joint weather community, we need to coordinate what we agree on as the weather forecast for this region.

Q: What's your latest coordinated forecast for Baghdad? Doesn't the heat complicate things for troops in protective suits?


It's in the 80s. Obviously, it makes life more uncomfortable the hotter it is. But they've trained in their [chemical] gear in hot weather. So they can do it. They have water. Commanders take that into consideration. But that's just one input compared to the big picture of what they have to do that day, what their objective is.

When it comes to war, the guys will do what they have to do. It's not going to slow us down. If temperatures get really warm, they'll continue the operation. They just learn to look forward to the next time they can take a shower.

Q: But isn't the heat going to get worse in Baghdad in the coming weeks?


Starting in May through the summer is when it gets really warm. You start hitting the high 90s, low 100s. It really won't have any impact on the troops. It's hot, it's uncomfortable, but they'll do what they have to do.

Q: Aside from worrying about the heat, what else keeps you up at night?


Dust. Sandstorms and dust storms. Visibility is always an issue, especially in a war of this nature when you have ground movement and helicopters. Visibility is probably one of the bigger factors.

Q: How do U.S. weather-forecasting abilities now compare to what we had during the first Gulf War?


The physics has been refined -- and the models and forecasting skill have gotten pretty good. But sometimes we overforecast or underforecast. I can't say we're foolproof. Mother Nature will always be Mother Nature.

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht