"Everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it," Mark Twain once quipped.
But now someone at least is doing something about some of its worst effects.
A seven-year-old Virginia company called High Performance Technologies, Inc. (HPTi) has developed a super-computer that will help National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists create a faster warning system and allow people living in severe weather zones more time to get out of harm's way.
With the impact of Hurricane Floyd still lingering, curbing the death and devastation wrought by severe weather is on the minds of tens of millions of Americans ( and not just those who reside in disaster-prone areas.
Many of us were glued to our television sets as cars streamed out of Miami to get out of the path of Floyd - then a Category 5 hurricane. And many of us monitored weather reports to learn about the hurricane's movements - whether or not we or our loved ones were in danger.
While some fringe environmentalists ardently believe that human beings can prevent severe weather events such as hurricanes simply by changing their behavior and reducing their use of fossil fuels, no serious scientist endorses that theory.
Severe hurricanes were a fact of life long before fossil fuels were in widespread use. A hurricane hitting Barbados and Martinique in 1780, for example, killed 22,000 people. A storm hitting Galveston, Texas in 1900 claimed up to 12,000 lives.
Although there is little evidence to suggest that hurricanes are increasing in either frequency or intensity, this doesn't mean that the risks of such weather events haven't risen in recent decades.
Increases in population density and development in hurricane-prone coastal areas pose far greater risks to life and property. Since human beings are largely powerless to control the weather, our only real defense against these risks is advance and accurate warning.
That's where HPTi, a rapidly growing firm in the heart of Northern Virginia's Info-Tech corridor comes in. There are few better examples of the crucial links between Information Technology, entrepreneurial spirit and America's burgeoning prosperity than companies like HTPi.
The Reston, Virginia company recently won a $15 million contract from the U.S. Department of Commerce to provide a High Performance Computing System to NOAA's Forecast Systems Laboratory (FSL) in Boulder, Colorado, one of the nation's leading weather technology and forecasting laboratories.
Not only did it win the contract, HTPi beat out giant rivals like IBM by offering the government an innovative new computer system 20 times more powerful than the one currently used by the FSL. Not bad for a company that started with four employees in 1992 and now employs 180.
The new FSL system will be capable of processing about four trillion - that's 4,000,000,000,000 - arithmetic computations per second.
While the prime developer of the new system, HTPi tapped into and integrated core technologies created by two other cutting-edge tech companies - Compaq and Myricom. Patuxent Technology Partners of Clarksville, Maryland was HPTi's partner in providing the latest in storage technology.
HTPi's academic partner - the University of Virginia - helped the firm integrate and apply the advanced cluster technologies that allowed the new computer system to make its quantum leap forward.
It shows the kind of private and public teamwork that has helped the United States pull away from its prime global competitors in the Information Technology sweepstakes.
The High Performance Computer System will permit FSL scientists to run experiments with several different computer weather forecasting models simultaneously, improving both the accuracy and timeliness of forecasts of severe weather including thunderstorms, hurricanes, tornadoes and winter storms.
The practical consequence of this will be more lives saved, less property damaged and fewer dreams shattered - not just for Americans but for everyone on Earth living in dangerous weather zones.
"The system will help researchers improve forecasts of severe weather such as hurricanes, thunderstorms, tornadoes and blizzards, and ultimately, to save lives and property" notes Secretary of Commerce William M. Daley. "It also provides a considerable boost to America's supercomputing industry."
Future Americans, like those in Mark Twain's 19th century America, will continue to complain about the weather. And while they may not be able to do anything to stop hurricanes in their tracks, they at least will have a much better chance to slip their hardest punches.
Rather than squandering our limited resources on futile efforts to control
weather, policymakers should devote more resources towards practical programs
that give Americans a fighting chance against severe storms.
David A. Ridenour is vice-president of The National Center for Public Policy Research. Comments may be sent to [email protected]