Graphical Aviation Forecasts: Coming to an FSS near you

Graphical Forecasts are slowly edging out the outdated Area Forecast as the meteorological staple of the continental US.

In April, the National Weather Service (NWS) Aviation Weather Center (AWC) rolled out the Graphical Area Forecasts (GFA) as a replacement for the former textual Area Forecasts (FA). This major update in how the NWS presents aviation weather was a necessary step in improving the legibility, accuracy, and overall pilot experience of the forecasts, despite the fact that the base information given to pilot has not changed. The GFA is and has been viewable at the AWC website, though the FA is still available as well.

The goal of the NWS is to gradually transition to using the GFA for everything, doing away with the FA for good. As a part of that transition, Flight Service Stations (FSS) have switched to using the GFA as the basis for their weather reports as of Monday, July 24th. What does that mean for you? It means more reliable and recent weather reports both from the FSS, and for your own flight planning. 

The GFA at a glance

There's little question that graphical forecasts are far easier to comprehend quickly than a wall of text. The high-resolution GFA shows observations, forecasts, and warnings up to 15 hours in the future and is refreshed every fifteen minutes with an updated report. You’ll find clouds, precipitation, icing, and wind as well as intensity values appropriate to each. The map can be panned out or in for a closer look at specific areas, or a better view of the overall picture, and will show highways or jet routes in an overlay as desired.

Aside from being easier to understand at a glance, the GFA provides the advantage of being able to show all conditions at once as applicable to their areas. In the past, character limits on FAs made it tricky to ensure all the regional information was covered during times of severe weather. The addition of SIGMETs and AIRMETs is a huge step forward, since neither of those were included in FAs. With the GFA hover feature, it's simple to hover over a location and view all relevant textual info while still visualizing the weather on the map.

One potential sticking point is that GFAs are computer-produced, unfiltered through a meteorologist. This means that while you're getting accurate data, sometimes the mercurial nature of the weather can result in conditions best described by an actual human being. Once the FA disappears, you'll have to rely on other methods for obtaining such context.

Aviation Weather

Your friendly neighborhood FSS

That context is one area where an FSS may prove beneficial. Observers at an FSS will have the GFA as a reference for weather reports, but they also can look and see what is going on outside and provide an accurate, observation-based area report. The GFA's improved accuracy and detail will prove a boon for these reports as well, as specialists will have the most accurate weather information at their fingertips.

The GFA is available now on the AWC website and is well-worth the time to explore and become familiar with. Though FAs are still available now, the GFAs will eventually fully replace them, so it's best to grow comfortable with the new format as soon as possible.

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