Norman business weather platform can save lives, dollars

WeatherOps Forecast Meteorologists Colby Goatley and Pete Johnson work on weather modeling for clients at Weather Decision Technologies in Norman on Tuesday, July 10, 2018.

The ultimate “man versus nature” drama unfolded in real life recently, as an elite Thai naval SEAL squad of divers rescued 12 young soccer players and their coach from a cave in Thailand. 

Aiding in the rescue effort was Norman business, Weather Decision Technologies, whose WeatherOps weather risk mitigation platform provides information to decision makers.

This was the team's first collaboration with geologists trying to predict flooding in a cave system.

“We were contacted by an executive at Google who we've worked with in the past and were urgently asked to join the rescue efforts by providing precision rainfall forecasts,” said WDT Marketing VP Steve Miller. “What we did was allocated a domain that was centered on the cave and had that model run through our supercomputer. It gave us the information they needed.”

WDT's efforts in the rescue were humanitarian. The company received no pay for its contributions.

Forecast Operations Supervisor John Tharp was lead on the Thai mission.

“From a forecasting perspective, it was a unique situation,” Tharp said.

WDT usually works with above-ground flooding. Flooding throughout a cave system is very different, Tharp said, as much lower amounts of rain can cause problems. Thailand was in the midst of its summer monsoon season, and everyone knew more rain was coming.

“The longer they waited, the higher the risk was that the next time there would be even more flooding of the cave,” Tharp said.

The dive was challenging, even for experts, as evidenced by the tragic death of former Thai SEAL diver Saman Gunan. Bringing kids out who were not divers made the rescue effort even more difficult. Portions of the cave were so narrow that scuba tanks had to be taken off, and there was very low visibility.

Tharp said the dive team needed to know when they would have favorable weather windows for the rescue, as well as when the most dangerous conditions were likely to occur.

Weather modeling is what WDT does, but in the case of the cave system, they needed to establish a baseline for the cave first. To do that, WDT looked at June 26 when the caves flooded and trapped the boys and their coach.

“We helped them determine how much rain had fallen at that time, so the geologists could determine how much rain it took to cause significant problems,” Tharp said.

Next, WDT provided information on expected rainfall to allow decision makers to create a timeline for the water rescue.

While this situation presented dramatic life-and-death immediacy, creating weather models to determine highly accurate forecasts is what WDT's WeatherOps program is designed to do.

“Our operation, as a whole, is centered around the impacts that weather has on people going about their day-to-day lives,” Tharp said.

WeatherOps provides information to the people who decide whether a costly shut down of an oil rig is needed or if an outdoor concert should be cancelled or delayed. They also provide information to Norman Public Schools when administrators must decide if they should cancel classes for a snow day, have students take cover due to a tornado, or postpone a baseball game because of lightning.

“All we do is advise. We do not tell them to close schools,” Miller said. “With our products, we're able to help companies profit. We have dynamic position oil rigs in the Gulf, and we can let them know they need to fire their engines and prepare for a frontal crossing that could take them off of their pipe. It can cost millions of dollars per hour for them to not be operational.”

A big part of the WeatherOps service is communication.

“I think it's important, as a whole, how critical timely and accurate weather information can be,” said Forecast Services Director Chris Kerr. “We try to take information and put it into laymen's terms. There's a wealth of weather information, but what you do with that information is critical. We have to have clear, concise communication. That's one of the things we look for in our forecasters.”

Miller said they often work with business professionals with no prior weather knowledge.

“There is a lot of jargon not used anywhere else but in the weather industry,” Miller said. “We create an environment where they can make actionable decisions with minimal knowledge about weather.”

WDT is 18 years old and has always been located in Norman. The business moved to its current office in the Innovation Hub on OU's south campus to be close to the National Weather Center and the school of meteorology.

“That is a neat opportunity for us, as we can hire the top weather talent right out of meteorology school; however, we do hire from other universities as well,” Miller said. “We have 80 employees. Seven are Ph.D's, 30 are masters and the rest are degreed with bachelors or higher.”

The business contributes an estimated $350 million in net wealth effect to the Norman and Oklahoma economies. While WeatherOps is WDT's flagship product, the business also offers RadarScope, a $10 app that's consistently in the top 10 grossing apps on the Apple store and is also available on Android and Windows. Another product, Weather Radio, is a $5 weather-alert app.

“All of our products are backed by 58 owned and licensed patents,” Miller said.

Kerr said while they're used to their products affecting daily life through providing information for sound decision making, the Thai cave rescue was unique in many ways and won't be forgotten by the WeatherOps team.

“We've dealt with situations like this in the past — Hurricane Harvey is what I like to use where the impact with life is more than it normally is sitting behind a computer,” Kerr said. “You could see the ways the information would be valuable to the rescue efforts.”

Meanwhile, the team will continue doing their job, hoping the information they provide saves lives and provides economic benefits to the affected communities. One of WDT's biggest challenges is not the weather, however — it's the downside of technology.

Tharp said misinformation on social media creates problems even as WDT works to provide accurate, timely information.

“We have to battle misinformation even though we're dealing with decision makers,” Tharp said. “It sometimes proves to be a bit of a struggle because even a little bit of misinformation can be shared so rapidly. It's part of a transition that's occurring in meteorologists' roles.”

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My passions include yoga, running, swimming, cycling, hiking, nature photography and a love of animals and the natural environment.