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Chuyen Nguyen
Jason E. Nachamkin
David Sidoti
Jacob Gull
Adam Bienkowski
Rich Bankert
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Melinda Surratt


Given the diversity of cloud-forcing mechanisms, it is difficult to classify and characterize all cloud types through the depth of a specific troposphere. Importantly, different cloud families often coexist even at the same atmospheric level. The Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) is developing machine learning–based cloud forecast models to fuse numerical weather prediction model and satellite data. These models were built for the dual purpose of understanding numerical weather prediction model error trends as well as improving the accuracy and sensitivity of the forecasts. The framework implements a UNet convolutional neural network (UNet-CNN) with features extracted from clouds observed by the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-16 (GOES-16) as well as clouds predicted by the Coupled Ocean–Atmosphere Mesoscale Prediction System (COAMPS). The fundamental idea behind this novel framework is the application of UNet-CNN for separate variable sets extracted from GOES-16 and COAMPS to characterize and predict broad families of clouds that share similar physical characteristics. A quantitative assessment and evaluation based on an independent dataset for upper-tropospheric (high) clouds suggests that UNet-CNN models capture the complexity and error trends of combined data from GOES-16 and COAMPS, and also improve forecast accuracy and sensitivity for different lead time forecasts (3–12 h). This paper includes an overview of the machine learning frameworks as well as an illustrative example of their application and a comparative assessment of results for upper-tropospheric clouds.

Significance Statement

Clouds are difficult to forecast because they require, in addition to spatial location, accurate height, depth, and cloud type. Satellite imagery is useful for verifying geographical location but is limited by 2D technology. Multiple cloud types can coexist at various heights within the same pixel. In this situation, cloud/no cloud verification does not convey much information about why the forecast went wrong. Sorting clouds by physical attributes such as cloud-top height, atmospheric stability, and cloud thickness contributes to a better understanding since very different physical mechanisms produce various types of clouds. Using a fusion of numerical model outputs and GOES-16 observations, we derive variables related to atmospheric conditions that form and move the clouds for our machine learning–based cloud forecast. The resulting verification over the U.S. mid-Atlantic region revealed our machine learning–based cloud forecast corrects systematic errors associated with high atmospheric clouds and provides accurate and consistent cloud forecasts from 3 to 12 h lead times.

Open access