2005 Science, Technology and Environment

Robert Davis

Pioneered several weather predicting initiatives to help forecast flash floods, the deadliest form of severe weather hazards.

No type of severe weather takes more lives each year than flash flooding. And no person has done more to mitigate the damage of these national disasters than the National Weather Service’s Robert Davis.

Mr. Davis developed Areal Mean Basin Estimated Rainfall (AMBER), a flash flood monitoring program that served as the prototype for the National Weather Service’s Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System Flash Flood Monitoring and Prediction (FFMP) that is currently used in all 120 of the Service’s forecasting offices.

Before this system was put in place, there was no database of streams—a key factor in flash flooding. Thanks to Davis’ work, it is now possible for authorities to determine which individual streams will get heavy rain and possibly flood. Since being put to work nationwide, there have been more than 40 cases where AMBER/FFMP has been used as a flash flood warning tool and succeeded in mitigating the damage.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Davis’ discovery is not its success but the story of how it came to be. The AMBER program did not spring from some Congressional mandate or Executive Order to improve flash flood forecasting. It is a product of Davis’ own initiative and was developed largely on his own time, in his own home.

Davis believed that more accurate flood forecasting was necessary and would require taking analysis from the macro to the micro level. He wanted to learn as much as possible about smaller basins, so he began to match up radar data to basins two to three square miles in size. Since this work began in the 1980s, he didn’t have access to a powerful computer at home that he could use to run models and analyze data. He simply did much of the work by hand at his kitchen table. Davis spent almost three years inputting basin information for just the Pittsburgh area when he built AMBER. With modern technology, a similar analysis was done for the entire country in about three months.

Davis’ tireless efforts are paying off. In Tunkahannock, Pennsylvania, AMBER/FFMP warnings contained enough specific information for emergency management officials that they were able to barricade roads, divert school buses and potentially save lives. In Jackson, Kentucky, locals were able to zero in on the five creeks where flooding would occur and lessen the damage of severe floods. And in Binghamton, New York, Davis’ invention gave local officials critical advance warning of flooding caused by a nearly stationary thunderstorm that dropped almost six inches of rain.

Even though he is a forecaster and not an academic, Mr. Davis is recognized as a leading thinker in his field. He has written more than 15 papers about AMBER, including a peer-reviewed chapter in the American Meteorological Society’s Meteorological Monograph, a journal that rarely publishes field forecasters’ writing. He has also conducted dozens of presentations across the country on his work.

A typical forecaster on the nightly news has trouble figuring out what’s going to happen with the weather just a few hours from now. Robert Davis’ foresight and vision allowed him to see what would be needed to better protect ourselves from flash floods years in advance. This is one instance where a forecaster got it right, and our communities are safer for his efforts.