Staying Ahead of the Storm: The Case for Funding Weather Forecasting

Tom Di Liberto, meteorologist
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UCS | August 23, 2013, 2:08 pm EDT
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I have a confession to make . . . I’m a meteorologist. The forecasts that my colleagues and I make every day can be the scorn of many — as anyone who got dressed expecting a beautiful sunny day can attest to when they ventured outside to find a cool, dreary, wet day. But the weather is unique, and regardless of a bad forecast experience, the public will use and demand our forecasts again and again. Simply put, knowing the weather tomorrow or for the next week is important. It affects our lives on a personal and global level.

In a field somewhere in Kansas or maybe Iowa or Oklahoma, tracking a supercell thunderstorm in 2009.

In a field somewhere in Kansas or maybe Iowa or Oklahoma, tracking a supercell thunderstorm in 2009.

I came to be a weather geek — er, meteorologist — the way many do: As a child I was obsessed with thunderstorms, snowstorms, and hurricanes. I was amazed by the beauty and the power of Mother Nature and desperate to know why and how these events occurred. My career has taken me from the lake effect snow showers in upstate New York, to storm surge impacts for New York City, to the weather and climate that can affect food security in Central America, Africa, and Central Asia. And my involvement with the UCS Science Network has shown me that when it comes to effective policy making around the weather, there’s more to it than just the science.

State of the Science on Weather Forecasting Models   

Today is an interesting time to be a meteorologist. While we have seen our forecasts improve over the last 30 years in the United States, we also have witnessed weather models from Europe outperform our own. Dr. Cliff Mass, an atmospheric science professor at the University of Washington, has detailed this extensively in his blog over the last year. Similarly, MIT atmospheric scientist Dr. Kerry Emmanuel (who recently worked with UCS) made the case in a post at the Wall Street Journal.

Sandy Shows Us Our Weaknesses

Giving a presentation “Forecasting: How hard can that be?” on the challenge of using ensemble models to forecast Snow-quester.

Giving a presentation “Forecasting: How hard can that be?” on the challenge of using ensemble models to forecast Snow-quester.

But, progress has been made in rectifying this, thanks in part to Superstorm Sandy. It was during Sandy that the public became much more aware of this nebulous weather model called the Euro (actually the European model, but the name Euro is better as a sound bite). The public listened to on-air meteorologists incessantly mention how the Euro model had forecast a path for Sandy into the east coast of the U.S. before that of the American weather model, called the GFS.

Meteorologists can be a prideful bunch. This high-profile modeling failure caused a public reflection into the way we model the weather. After all, the Europeans spend more money on numerical weather prediction and, until recently, used stronger computers. Sadly though, up until this very visible failure of the GFS, there lacked a political will to solve this embarrassing issue. Luckily, set aside in the aid package passed by Congress in January to address the impacts of Hurricane Sandy was $25 million to finally help increase the strength of our supercomputers (check), which, hopefully, will put our models on par with the Europeans.

Staying Ahead of Weather Disasters

But this should only be seen as a first step. A culture must be developed where the importance of investing in the development and improvement of our weather infrastructure is valued. Weather models are not the only part of the country’s meteorological organization that deserves attention. The degradation of our satellites and weather observation network as well as the constant threat of budget cuts and furloughs to government meteorologists should not be overlooked.

This whole process, though, has been backward. We simply should not have to rely on massive weather disasters or visible failures of our weather models to drive political will to the point of action. In a warming world where we could expect to see an increase in certain types of extreme weather, the meteorological machine needs to be well-oiled and up to the task. In addition to major disruptions in people’s lives, weather extremes cost the U.S. billions of dollars each year, including over $100 billion last year alone. Regardless of how much warming we will inevitably see in future, the weather will need to be forecast just the same. And I’d personally like to see our weather infrastructure up to this gargantuan task.

The views expressed in this post solely represent the opinions of Tom Di Liberto and do not necessarily represent NOAA policy or opinion.

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