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AccuClimate: The Future of Climate Change Forecasting

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Hurricane Model

CREDIT: AP Photo/Bruce Smith

MELBOURNE, Australia — “There’s a whole bunch of different things going on if you look at psychology surrounding weather and climate,” David Jones, Head of Climate Monitoring and Prediction Services at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, said in his office in Melbourne. “Personal values, institutional frameworks, seasonal cycles. What we know for certain is that a lack of information is detrimental to good decision making.”

Sitting in front of two large, metadata-loaded screens, Jones was in the midst of explaining how climate science will soon fill a role similar to weather forecasting: helping humanity deal with the impacts on a regular basis. Up until recently, climate science has been used to determine whether or not the world is warming and what’s causing this warming. But with the necessary scientific evidence now in place, climate science will soon be used to help guard against the risks posed by climate change.

“It’s beyond weather, which I effectively characterize as yelling out ‘here comes a hot day,’” Jones said. “At the Bureau of Meteorology we’re in the business of saying, ‘here comes a hot day and by the way, it’s the second hottest on record.”

There’s a lot of intelligence that comes along with the second part of that sentence. For example, what happened the last time it got so hot? Maybe there were bushfires or electrical system failures.

“We’re only partially through the transformation of doing for climate what was done for weather and making it something that informs a better social outcome,” Jones said. “That’s really where my interest is. How do you take the science and make it useful?”

Although personal experience may sometimes suggest otherwise, the accuracy of weather forecasting improved drastically along with the introduction of computer-based modeling some 40 years ago. According to Jones, the seven-day forecast now is probably as reliable as the one-day forecast was then.

“If climate science becomes more in-tune with societal impacts and decisions that people have to make then the probability of better outcomes is increased,” Jones said. “Tying science to decision-making will improve the science.”

Year to date temperatures deciles for Australia showing that temperatures have been above average to record warm over nearly the whole continent in 2013.

Year to date temperatures deciles for Australia showing that temperatures have been above average to record warm over nearly the whole continent in 2013.

CREDIT: Australian Bureau of Meteorology

The Global Nature of Climate Forecasting

Jones is not alone in his forecast of the coming climate science shift. In June, the government-funded Climate Service: UK launched to build upon Britain’s national climate capability.

In an interview about Climate Service: UK, Stephen Belcher, Professor of Meteorology and Head of the Met Office Hadley Centre, one of the UK’s foremost climate change research centers, said:

“The time has come for the climate science community to change its focus. We must now work to develop the tools that humanity needs in order to deal with climate change. This is what Climate Service UK is about. It is a framework to explain how weather-related events and their associated risks are likely to change over the coming seasons, years and decades.”

Climate Service: UK is part of the World Meteorological Organization’s Global Framework for Climate Services (GFCS), a global partnership of governments and organizations that produce and use climate information and services, with a particular focus on developing countries.

In that same interview, Belcher said the global nature of climate science is of particular value when it comes to developing countries in which citizens are more vulnerable to the hazards associated with climate change.

One example of this is a recent study in which scientists found a way to forecast El Niño weather events in the Pacific a year in advance, long enough to let farmers plant crops less vulnerable to global shifts in rainfall.

“Better forecasting will mean farmers can adapt,” Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, head of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and a co-author of the report with experts in Russia, Israel, Germany and the United States, told Reuters.

While the new system of prediction is not always spot-on, it could still prove worthwhile to farmers when deciding whether to invest in drought- or flood-resistant crops.

Another instance in which climate forecasting could have played and important — and life-saving — role is the July 2011 floods in Pakistan, which killed thousands and disrupted the lives of up to 20 million people and could have been predicted eight to ten days ahead of time.

“People don’t understand the powers of modern environmental prediction,” Peter Webster, a professor of earth and atmospheric science at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and lead author of the study “Were the Pakistan Floods Predictable” said in an interview. “This disaster could have been minimized and even the flooding could have been minimized.”

While the technology to make such predictions is a big part of the equation, disseminating the information can be just as much of a challenge, especially in developing countries. With climate change increasing the frequency of extreme weather events, building a communication network to provide critical information and improve decision-making becomes even more imperative. This can require creative solutions, such as imams at local mosques discussing the flood forecasts each day in prayer, which Webster said happens in Bangladesh.

Better Societal Outcomes in the U.S.

A 2011 report by the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication found that only 19 percent of TV weather forecasters in the U.S. accept the established science that human activity is driving climate change.

Kris Wilson, a senior lecturer in the College of Communication at the University of Texas who worked as a weather anchor and researches media coverage of climate change, said that “a lot of weathercasters have found that even if they talk about the science as it’s understood, there are people in the audience who are going to respond negatively and say that it’s political. This makes weathercasters hesitant to bring up the subject because TV is about ratings, and you don’t want to alienate your audience.”

If forecasters are hesitant to talk about climate change, or even about science, it would seem less likely that they’d be willing to include that additional, value-added information that Jones emphasized as being so important — such as where any given weather event sits in the history of an area’s climate and what the immediate impacts might be.

A recent article by Chris Mooney in Mother Jones argues that the divide between TV weathermen and climate scientists is closing. In this case due to the actual ways that climate change is affecting weather, such as forcing weather patterns to stay in place longer or slowing down jet streams.

“Meteorologists are trained to look at the atmosphere, and generally are pretty intelligent. And anybody with that sort of training, watching the atmosphere, is going to notice that there are new patterns emerging,” explained Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground and a leading commenter on climate change and weather, in the article.

In July, the House of Representatives Committee of Science, Space, and Technology passed the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act of 2013 by a voice vote along party lines. The legislation would improve weather forecasting research, but do so by cutting NOAA’s spending on climate change research.

At the bill’s hearing Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), said:

“We have seen grant after grant being given to anyone who can come up with something that will excite the public about global climate change in a way that would suggest that mankind is responsible in order to justify restrictions on human activity.”

This is the kind of black-or-white rhetoric that has bifurcated the conversation around climate change in the U.S. along party lines. But as David Jones in Australia and others are realizing, climate change and weather can’t so easily be separated.

Luckily, there are some people who don’t see things only in the two political shades of red or blue. At the hearing Dr. William Gail, President-Elect of the American Meteorological Society, said:

“Put simply, understanding the fundamentals of climate variability is essential to forecasting weather. What we learn from climate modeling significantly improves our weather forecast skill. Arbitrarily distinguishing between weather and climate makes no sense. Rather than dividing the weather and climate communities, we need to bring them together to improve forecast accuracy at ever-longer timescales.”

“The traditional division is that climate is what you expect and weather is what you get. I think some famous American originally said that” Jones said during our interview. That traditional division is no longer so distinct —- if only Mark Twain were still around to come up with a new pithy quote.

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