USA Banner

Official US Government Icon

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure Site Icon

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - March/April 2001

Foretell - Finally, Someone Is Doing Something About The Weather!

by Paul Pisano

Everyone is familiar with the old axiom, "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." Well, that is no longer the case, at least when it comes to highway officials, road maintenance chiefs, and transit managers who now have a new "weapon" - FORETELL™ - in the "war" against adverse weather on the highways.

While there is no shortage of weather information, there is a shortage of reliable road weather information - that is, timely, accurate information about the effect of weather on road conditions. Highway maintenance professionals need to know what is happening or going to happen at ground level in specific locations at specific times. Where will it snow first and when? Is the snow sticking? Are the roads becoming slippery? What will the storm do in the next two hours?

Highway safety and mobility rest on the decisions made by these managers. Where and when should a deicer be spread? Where and when should equipment and crews be deployed? Understanding the characteristics of a storm can make a significant difference in how well a storm is handled.

Adverse weather - snow, ice, fog, rain, and high winds - significantly affects operations and safety on all roads - city streets, urban highways, rural routes, and interstate highways. These roads connect people to one another and to jobs and markets. In a major metropolitan area, a one-day shutdown caused by heavy snowfall can cost tens of millions of dollars in lost wages, lost commercial sales, and operating losses and expenses. But even more importantly, each year in the United States and Canada, about 7,000 people are killed and 450,000 are injured in weather-related crashes.

So, it's vitally important to develop integrated weather information systems that keep everyone moving safely and allow for the efficient treatment of roads in bad weather. In response to this challenge, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has implemented the Road Weather Management Program to facilitate the deployment of integrated road weather information systems that will help state and local departments of transportation to use scarce resources more effectively to prevent crashes, manage traffic, respond to incidents, and save money under adverse weather conditions.

FORETELL provides via the Internet the timely, detailed, and relevant weather-related road information needed by state highway managers and the public. FORETELL is a multistate program, funded in part by FHWA, integrating intelligent transportation systems (ITS) technology with advanced weather-prediction systems.


FORETELL was initiated by FHWA as part of its Rural ITS Program. Participants in the program include the state departments of transportation for Iowa, Missouri, and Wisconsin. Private-sector partner Castle Rock Services developed and now operates the system for the Upper Mississippi Valley region. "The FORETELL project clearly defines the important role that FHWA plays in bringing states and nations together to achieve a common objective. The collective expertise, knowledge, and resources are what it takes to accomplish these types of advances in transportation," said Iowa Department of Transportation Director Mark Wandro.

The system works by collecting and combining raw weather information from many sources to provide the most recent and accurate weather data available. The sources of weather information for FORETELL include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Weather Service, Environment Canada, agricultural sensors, airport weather sensors, roadside automatic weather stations, and even sensors on ITS snowplows. The latest generation heat balance models can forecast road surface temperatures, enabling FORETELL to predict whether precipitation will melt, freeze, or just blow off the road surface.

FORETELL implements proven approaches to pavement condition forecasting developed in Europe and is adapting these approaches to address conditions specific to North America. The FORETELL system features:

  • Detailed forecasts of what the weather will be in 24 hours, generated four times per day, with hourly updates (called nowcasts) that show current weather conditions.
  • An increased ability to pinpoint which areas are being affected by winter weather conditions by using data provided at about a six-mile (10-kilometer) grid resolution, which allows for weather predictions every six miles rather than the 20-mile (32-kilometer) grid used by national weather models.
  • Gridded atmospheric weather forecasts and nowcasts mapped to interstate highways and U.S. and state routes to predict pavement conditions.
  • "Plain English" descriptions of the road and weather conditions, based on the gathering and translating of atmospheric and road condition information from specific road points.
  • Weather event descriptions on demand via Internet and telephone systems; fax, pager, and e-mail notification capabilities are being developed.
  • "By using the power of the Internet, FORETELL provides to our state and local transportation partners the ability to detect changing road conditions rapidly, giving them more time to respond to winter weather problems," said FHWA's Operations Program Manager Christine M. Johnson.

Highway departments will know when to call for additional trucks and drivers, whether to plan for split shifts for long-duration storms, whether to pretreat the roads with anti-icing materials, and when and where to spread deicing materials. This will result in more effective management of staff and materials while maintaining high levels of road service. This will also help already stretched budgets by saving money through the reduction of overtime and the more efficient use of materials, but more importantly, it will save lives.

Because FORETELL is currently in the demonstration phase, it can be accessed only by program partners with approved identifying names and passwords, but the general public will eventually use FORETELL to access a wide range of weather and pavement condition information for any road or region.

An independent firm, Battelle, has been commissioned by FHWA to evaluate the performance and results of FORETELL. Some preliminary work was completed, and during the winters of 2000-2001 and 2001-2002, more information will be collected from winter maintenance crews and will be evaluated. A final report is expected in summer 2002.

Ultimately, when FORETELL is available to the public, travelers - including highway and trucking professionals, everyday commuters, long-distance travelers, transit operators, and all other road users - will be able to make more informed trip plans. Based on highly detailed weather warnings and information about road conditions, travelers can determine whether it is wise to start/stop earlier or later than originally planned, to change the mode of transportation, or even to postpone or cancel the trip.

"This will ease traffic congestion, reduce fuel waste, and lower the number of on-the-road injuries and fatalities," Johnson said.

FORETELL will provide a single "one-stop information shop" for users to check road and weather condition data. This will ensure a seamless distribution of data, specifically tailored to FORETELL users, reducing the amount of confusing and contradictory information.

Through the Road Weather Management Program, FHWA is using its unique position to develop accurate and understandable systems, such as FORETELL, to keep the nation's highway traffic moving safely and efficiently. FHWA continues to bring people together to create a truly national vision of overall program design and to help the states deploy advanced systems. FHWA knows that accurate road weather information is more than just convenient - it's critical.

Paul Pisano is the program coordinator for the Road Weather Management Program in FHWA's Office of Transportation Operations. He worked in several offices at FHWA over the past 15 years. For 10 years, he was at the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center, where he was a team leader for the Traffic Safety Research Team. In this capacity, he was responsible for the Rural Intelligent Transportation Systems Research Program and for research concerning visibility and traffic control devices. In 1999, Pisano moved to the Office of Transportation Operations and is now responsible for the program that addresses the effects of weather on the highway system, including winter maintenance. He has a bachelor's degree and a master's degree both in civil engineering from the University of Maryland.


While FORETELL is not yet available to the public, you can discover what the federal government, state agencies, and private companies can achieve when they concentrate their technical and intuitive resources. For a demonstration of FORETELL's unique capabilities, log on the Web site at For more information, call Paul Pisano, team leader of FHWA's Weather Management Team, at (202) 366-1301, or e-mail him at