UCAR Congressional Briefing: Subseasonal to seasonal forecasts

University scientists and private companies look to oceans to improve longer-term predictions

Apr 24, 2018 - by Staff

WASHINGTON — Federal investments in atmospheric and oceanic research are ushering in major advances in longer-term weather prediction, enabling private companies to provide their clients with valuable forecasts of weather patterns weeks to months in advance, experts said today at a congressional briefing.

A panel of scientists representing universities and the private sector agreed that continued government investment in advanced computer modeling, observing tools, and supercomputers is critical for progress in forecasting on longer time scales.

The nonprofit University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) sponsored the briefing.

Subseasonal to seasonal forecasts are predictions of regional weather patterns from two weeks to two years in advance, such as the likelihood of unusually dry or stormy conditions. Improving such forecasts is a national priority, emphasized in the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act that Congress passed last year 

The panelists said the key to long-term forecasts is increased understanding of the role of the oceans and ocean-atmosphere patterns such as El Niño.

"Ocean conditions change more slowly than the atmosphere, and that longer memory allows us to predict weather patterns on longer time scales," said Ben Kirtman, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. "How temperatures evolve below the ocean surface, and how the atmosphere and the ocean exchange heat and moisture and momentum — these processes are particularly important when you want to make subseasonal to seasonal forecasts."

Gokhan Danabasoglu, chief scientist of the Community Earth System Model at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said advanced computer models that incorporate observations of ocean conditions are being increasingly used for longer-term prediction. For example, forecasters are able to produce increasingly accurate month-ahead outlooks of temperatures over North America, and researchers have even been able to generate a 10-year forecast of Arctic sea ice conditions, which is important to shipping companies.

"Better models and more detailed information about ocean conditions lead to better predictions," Danabasoglu said. "We are seeing promising results in longer-term predictions that can be highly beneficial to society."

Such forecasts are providing critical intelligence to the $100 billion livestock industry, said Chad McNutt, principal and co-founder of Livestock Wx, which provides livestock producers with advanced weather and climate information. He explained that cattle producers need advance information about temperature and precipitation patterns that affect winter wheat and other crops that cattle graze on. His clients also want to know the timing of insect infestations that affect cattle health.

"Agriculture sectors like the cattle industry need sustained support for research into improved subseasonal to seasonal forecasting," McNutt said. "The forecasts have real economic implications for producers."

Alicia Karspeck, climate scientist and associate director of research partnerships with Jupiter Technology Systems, Inc., said private companies need high-quality, accessible, and continuous data from federal agencies to create long-term prediction products. Jupiter relies on federally funded observations and computer modeling to provide its clients with customized climate and weather risk analytics on timescales of weeks to decades.

"Federal funding for climate research, observations, and computing creates real value for the private sector, helping us deliver high-quality forecast products to our customers," Karspeck said. "Our company understands that the pipeline from scientific discovery to useful and marketable products relies on a vibrant, well-resourced research sector."

Antonio Busalacchi, president of UCAR, emphasized the close partnerships among government agencies, universities, and private companies as they work to improve long-range forecasts.

"These collaborations are enabling us to better understand the entire Earth system in ways that will allow society to prepare for weather patterns weeks to months in advance," Busalacchi said. "Accurate subseasonal to seasonal forecasts will help to safeguard lives and property as well as benefit every economic sector."

The briefing was the latest in a series of UCAR Congressional Briefings that draw on expertise from UCAR's university consortium and public-private partnerships to provide insights into critical topics in the Earth system sciences. Past briefings have focused on moving advances in Earth science research to industry, predicting wildfires, forecasting space weather, tools that improve aviation weather safety, the state of the Arctic, hurricane prediction, potential impacts of El Niño, and new advances in water resources forecasting.

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