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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 08/14/2008

A Full-Out Effort to Forecast Olympic Weather

By Steve Tracton

The success of the Beijing Olympics will be largely determined by the prowess of athletes, quality of venues and infrastructure, and the experience had by participants and spectators. But weather can be a make-or-break factor in any sporting event with an outdoor component, especially the Olympics.

Rain can muddy tracks and fields and mess with tightly packed event schedules, disrupting the eating, sleeping and training routines of athletes. In sports like volleyball and tennis, high temperatures and humidity are as much the opponent as the players on the other side of the net. Gusty winds can wreak havoc with sailing, canoeing and rowing competitions. And wind, temperature and humidity play a significant role in track -- by rule, a tail wind over 2 meters per second (almost 4.5 mph) nullifies records set in events including races of 200 meters or less, long jump and triple jump.

Heat, humidity and rain are already being blamed for empty seats at many venues during the Games' first week, while the family of a British medalist was struck by lightning along the Great Wall of China.

Keep reading to learn about the international effort to forecast weather at the Olympics. Also, see our full forecast into early next week, and NatCast if you're headed to tonight's game.

August in and around Beijing is typically hot and humid with thunderstorms that may be accompanied by torrential rain, lightning, high winds and hail. Beijing is also prone to receiving the remnants of typhoons that make landfall along the China coast. To top it off, as Ann touched on recently, humid and stagnant air traps smog and particulates in a city infamous for poor air quality. Except maybe for the severity of its pollution, Beijing in August sounds like a weather clone of D.C. in August (the current August -- with its not-so-hot temperatures and unusually low humidity -- notwithstanding).

With so much at stake, the World Meteorological Organization has been coordinating efforts by China and other countries to provide accurate and detailed weather information for these Olympics.

China launched the FengYun-3 A satellite, acquired a new IBM supercomputer, installed a ring of Doppler radars around the city, and established a mesoscale network of automated surface-based weather observations.

Additionally, many countries, including the United States, are tapping their scientific and technical experts and advanced computer modeling systems to support weather monitoring and forecasting operations during the Olympics. According to, "a dozen of the world's top meteorologists along with 30 members of China's weather team will work around the clock during the Games ... to provide weather updates every three to six hours for each venue." (What was that about too many cooks in the kitchen?)

For those of us not in Beijing, the two best (public) sources of Olympics weather information are at and You can decide for yourself whether the forecasts are medal worthy.

Curiously, reports, the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee has "banned vague forecasts such as 'probability of rainfall,' hoping to minimize confusion for athletes and spectators alike" -- despite having the experts and computer models in place to provide such information. Sounds like the committee needs a Capital Weather Gang lecture on the importance and value of communicating forecast uncertainty.

WMO is also using the Beijing Olympics as a testing ground for next-generation forecast systems. The effort consists of two projects: A Forecast Demonstration Project, dedicated to 0-6 hour "nowcasts" of precipitation and thunderstorms, and a Research and Development Project focusing on 6-36 hour forecasts of high-impact weather, as well as quantifying the day-to-day variations in forecast uncertainty. The collaboration of meteorological expertise and technology from multiple countries will presumably accelerate development of better forecasting tools and procedures.

Some of you will notice that I have not referred to the much mentioned and ballyhooed efforts by China to control the weather, not just observe and forecast it. China claims, hubristically, that it successfully prevented rain from ruining those lavish, astounding, breathtaking (man they were good!) Opening Ceremonies, by seeding clouds with silver iodide and making them "rain out" before they reached the Bird's Nest. Reportedly, more than 1,000 silver iodide-laced rockets were launched.

China's weather modification program is believed to be the world's largest, with thousands of peasant farmers on call to launch rocket attacks against rain.

To my knowledge, however, China has not provided verifiable documentation counter to the the 2003 report from the National Academy of Sciences that states, "there is still no convincing scientific proof of the efficacy of intentional weather modification efforts."

By Steve Tracton  | August 14, 2008; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  International Weather, Tracton  
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