NOAA’s National Hurricane Center dedicates new research facility

The new William M. Lapenta Laboratory will develop tools for meteorologists

UPDATED: January 24, 2022. This story was updated to reflect two changes: 1) "William J. Lapenta" was changed to "William M. Lapenta," and 2) "Kathy Lapenta" was changed to "Cathy Lapenta."
Two people looking at a computer in a lab.
Dr. William Lapenta (right) and NOAA hurricane specialist unit branch chief Dr. Mike Brennan discuss the potential impacts of Hurricane Harvey: August 24, 2017. (Dennis Feltgen/NOAA)

From research to operations

After several years of dreams, plans and construction, NOAA’s National Hurricane Center (NHC) has launched a new era of applying the latest “research to operations”  at the recently opened William M. Lapenta Laboratory.

The research will take place in a new lab named in memory of the late Dr. William “Bill” Lapenta. As director of the National Centers for Environmental Protection, he and Ken Graham, director of the Hurricane Center, often spoke of finding a way to get the latest science into the NHC building and translate it to operations.

“We talked all of the time about figuring a way to bring NHC’s operational meteorologists closer to the research meteorologists and oceanographers all around NOAA,” said Graham. “We built this great testbed and the plan is to advance not only the science, but also operational  forecasts and the ability of users to make critical decisions based on those forecasts.”

For many years, NHC partnered with NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research via its Atlantic Oceanographic Meteorological Laboratory on Virginia Key, Florida, and with the wider tropical cyclone research community through the Joint Hurricane Testbed (JHT). The JHT focused on turning research into operations by developing tools for operational meteorologists. 

But while the JHT brought many exciting new tools and ideas to NHC operations, it did not have a face-to-face component. Both Graham and Lapenta believed in the value of having the researchers not just read about a hurricane, but experience what it’s like to be present in the building with forecasters while one is occurring.

Forecasters experience a great deal of pressure as they pore over data, analyze model guidance and release the forecast to the public. Graham and Lapenta understood the value of researchers seeing firsthand the huge impact-based support decisions that are made based on forecasts.

In the pipeline for 2022

The Hurricane and Ocean Testbed (HOT) will expand beyond JHT, developing software, testing tools and products, and, if successful, transitioning them into operations for NHC and National Weather Service Weather Forecast Offices. Work will also focus on marine forecasting by facilitating research and product development for the operational marine forecasting community, including NHC’s Tropical Analysis and Forecast Branch and the Ocean Prediction Center.

An example of some of the research coming out of the HOT is nine social science projects that are currently underway. The projects will delve into how the public: uses the NHC website; interprets a track forecast cone; and understands percentages and probabilities. The results will inform the development of new products and services, then seek input from the rest of NOAA, the media and emergency managers before going operational.

A life honored

Sadly, Bill lost his life in 2019 while swimming near Duck, North Carolina, when he was caught in a rip current generated by Hurricane Lorenzo more than 1,500 miles away. “It was such a huge loss, both personally and professionally,” said Graham. “It was incredibly important to me to carry this dream out.”

In a moving ceremony on December 15, 2021, Bill’s wife Cathy Lapenta, accompanied by her two daughters, cut the ribbon to the lab that honors her late husband.