Since a major part of this book will revolve on the weather, it behoves us to learn a little about how the weather brodcasters on TV today make their forecasts. Meterology is the science dealing with the atmosphere ad its phenomena, including both weather and climate.
The science of weather forecasting: what it takes and why it’s so hard to get right.
Weather forecasting is an important science. Accurate forecasting can help to save lives and minimise property damage. It’s also crucial for agriculture, allowing farmers to track when it’s best to plant or helping them protect their crops.
And it will only become more vital in the coming years. Severe weather events are becoming more frequent and more intense because of climate change and variability.
I am a meteorologist with specialities in forecasting weather and climate change – who wants to improve the quality of weather products and their applications to spur socioeconomic development across Africa. Doing so matters: the World Bank has pointed out that better weather forecasts can bolster the continent’s development.
So, how does forecasting work? What does it take to produce accurate, reliable and timely forecasts? And how can African countries do better on this front?
A complex process
Weather forecasting is complex and challenging. The process entails three steps: observation, analysis and communication.
For observation, forecasters work with atmospheric models. These are sets of equations that depict the state of the atmosphere. The models use information on the initial state (observations) of the atmosphere, land and ocean to forecast weather. Data from the models is combined with information drawn from weather stations which are set up at key points across a region or country to give the actual state of the atmosphere. This data assimilation produces a better forecast since it optimises forecasters’ understanding of the evolving weather system.
It’s easier to be accurate when giving a short-range forecast – one that covers hours to days – than it is when interpreting long-range (months or seasons) data. The atmospheric system is dynamic; the more time that passes, the less certain forecasters can be of its state.
Technological advances have greatly improved the general quality of weather forecasting. For instance, more observations are possible because of automated weather stations. There’s also been an increase in the use of high performance computing. This allows for more data storage, faster processing, analysis, and visualisation of incoming data.
These datasets are key in diagnosing past and current weather to create a forecast. Unfortunately, the data observation network (both manual and automated stations) is still poor, especially in developing countries. That’s the result of limited investment into the sector. Forecasters in these countries are forced to use alternative datasets that are not very accurate.
One such alternative dataset is Numerical Weather Prediction. It uses global deterministic models that are normally not detailed enough to realistically represent convection at a local or regional level; forecasters using this data often can’t accurately predict rainfall, especially heavy rain. A lack of access to better historical data also means forecasters struggle to identify when an area’s seasonal rainfall will start and end because they can’t examine trends over years or decades.
It’s these variations in access to data and technology that mean some forecasts are more accurate than others.
Once forecasts have been collated, they are released in various forms. The way that weather products – apps, TV and radio bulletins or website updates – are packaged will differ depending on end users’ needs. Some people, like farmers, may be especially interested in seasonal forecasts and will seek these out. Athletes, for example, are more likely to use portals or services that focus on hourly and daily forecasts.
I would recommend that, whoever you are, you consider seasonal forecasts general information for broad planning purposes. But this should be interpreted together with monthly, weekly and daily forecasts for accuracy’s sake.
Some African countries also use another kind of data for their forecasts: indigenous ecological knowledge. This entails drawing from communities’ long held knowledge about their environments, and especially about long-term trends and shifts. Such knowledge can be blended with scientific processes during forecasting.
The “rainmakers” from the Nganyi community in western Kenya are a good example. These residents have deep historical knowledge about the area’s climate and weather patterns. They use plants and animals to understand what the weather is doing. They now work with meteorologists from Kenya’s Meteorological Department to produce seasonal weather forecasts.
Indigenous knowledge is under threat as the elders who are its custodians are perishing. Vital plants and animals used in their processes are going extinct, too. It would be a great pity if this resource were lost to forecasters. This knowledge plays an important role in local livelihoods and it supports efforts to forecast and make sense of seasonal climate state at local scale.
Some of the ways that weather is forecast today may change in the coming years. The World Meteorological Organisation is encouraging national meteorological services to move from what the weather will be (forecasting weather) to what the weather will do – impact based forecasting-and-warning.
There’s also a push to ensure forecasts reach the people who need them. A number of African countries, among them Malawi and Chad, have adopted what’s known as Participatory Scenario Planning. This collaborative approach designs and delivers user focused climate information services by taking the co-production process down to the sub-national level. It brings together producers and users of weather and climate information – meteorologists, indigenous knowledge experts, researchers, various sectors of local government, farmers, as well as NGOs and journalists.
Private firms that provide global weather forecasts are also emerging. This is commendable given that they supplement the services of countries with limited resources. But my advice is that, where the national meteorological and hydrological centres have capacity to produce weather forecasts, theirs should be considered first, ahead of those generated by private firms. This is because national bodies’ forecasts are based on the observed historical and observed data which they are custodians of rather than private institutions that rely mainly on model data.
Now that we know a little bit about meterology and why it is so difficult to predict the weather. I thought it might be fun to do a little time traveling, so lets go back in time to see how it all started.
A History of the Origin of Meteorology as the Science of Weather
The earliest information about Meteorology dates back to 340 BC when Aristotle, the famous Greek scientist, wrote Meteorologica, a book that gave a summary of meteorology. The scientists who followed didn’t do much on the study until about the 17th to 18th century when the thermometer and the barometer were invented.
The knowledge took a fast pace and in the 19th century, scientists began to do routine meteorological observations and send them through the telegraph. The 20th and 21st centuries record complex modern weather observations and transmissions.
The earth’s atmosphere is made of five layers that all contribute to the movement of winds, clouds, and water vapor which is important in determining weather patterns.
A student who wants to study meteorology must understand what does meteorology study involves to fully succeed in their course and get a good grade. The lowest layer is where most weather phenomena occur. The lowest earth atmospheric layer is about 10 kilometers high but almost the entire weather phenomenon occurs here. Unlike the other layers, the troposphere is crucial in the matter of the current climate change phenomenon globally.
There are many topics you can think about when preparing to write a why is climate change important essay. Some of the good places to check for climate change topics for essay are the internet or essay books in the library.
When did the history of meteorology start?
After explaining what meteorology is the study about, it’s time to look back into history. The current education system might only teach students about modern meteorology, but it’s also important to understand where it all began.
For many millenniums, people have observed the skies to determine how the weather will be, but the first person to record the observations in a book was Aristotle in 450 BC. The observations were done manually until the 17th century, when a thermometer was invented, followed by the barometer.
Why did meteorology become important?
Understanding what does meteorology means is a big step to understanding why people enroll to study meteorology in the university. Technology was developing fast, especially after the first world war.
Airplanes began to fly and bigger ships began to cruise the oceans. Road transportation was thriving fast, as was agriculture and tourism. The thermometer and barometer were important instruments in various scientific studies involving weather.
Airplanes were flying within the lowest atmospheric layer, and predicting the winds would help pilots know the routes to avoid. Military ships relied on accurate weather forecasting for safer navigation. People were traveling more to far distances and they needed to know what to expect in terms of weather.
All these are needs that made the study of meteorology important. Eventually, it became a full course taught in college education. The earliest schools offered a diploma in meteorology, although, before graduation, students had to complete their coursework writing. The need for further research led to dissertation writing, term papers, and other assignments related to meteorology. Later, the course advanced and students began to enroll in degree classes.
Relationship between meteorology and climate change
Scientific studies point to the current harsh weather conditions to climatic changes triggered by humans. A lot of academic literature, such as a dissertation, research paper, and term papers, has been written by the entire student universe to address this challenge. You might not lack a book in the library that addresses climate change.
Weather focuses on short-term forecasting but climate change focuses on the long term. The long-term effects of weather determine the consequent climate patterns. If the climate changes and becomes warmer by 1 degree, the weather patterns will get disrupted heavily. The two are interrelated and one directly affects the other.
For example, cutting down trees first affects climate change and then people begin to experience harsh weather conditions. Because climate patterns have changed over the last 50 years, the current weather patterns record extreme colds, extreme heat, too much rain, snow, strong storms, cyclones, etc.
According to history, the first teacher to teach a student about meteorology might have been Aristotle after he wrote his book on the subject in 450 BC. Many centuries later, the thermometer and the barometer were invented, which made it possible to observe the weather for routine reporting. After the second world war, meteorological satellites were launched and in the 1990s, weather services around the world were modernized. The computer era that began in the 1950s was important in the fast growth of meteorology.
No lets go forward in time to see where meteoroogy is going.
What’s in the future for weather forecasting?
A 2018 Pew Research Center survey asked people what was the most important topic covered on their local news broadcast. Weather, far and away, was No. 1 at 70%. By comparison, a 2019 Washington Post poll found 10% say they often talk with their friends about global warming.
This split does make some sense. But as we discuss on the podcast, we can’t really separate them as much as we used to do.
Weather forecasts are an immediate concern to pretty much everyone. If a forecast says it’s going to rain later today, you’re probably going to take an umbrella with you. Climate change refers to long-term changes.
Still, for something that interests so many, there are a lot of misconceptions about weather forecasts.
I cover a lot of what goes into the forecasts in the podcast (so tune in), but one big misconception is how accurate they are. While people love to rag on meteorologists who get it wrong, it turns out, forecasts are better than they’ve ever been.
They’ve gotten a lot more accurate. Acording to New York Metro Weather’s John Homenuk there are “amazing minds working on producing these weather models. They’ve gotten so detailed that we can predict individual thunderstorms, things like that. This incredible technology boom has helped immensely.”
One quick way to know forecasts have gotten better is to examine hurricanes and see how the error rate in terms of nautical miles for these storms has declined.
The forecast error rate has dropped by anywhere from about 70% (for a 24-hour forecast) to about 90% (for a 72-hour forecast) since 1970. To put that in perspective, the average error for a 72-hour forecast was about 450 miles off in 1970. Today, it’s about 50 miles off.
That improved accuracy has saved countless lives.
Put another way, your local meteorologist has gotten really good — thanks to weather models and a better understanding of weather patterns.
That said, we’ll probably never achieve perfect accuracy.
A big problem is the butterfly effect. As Homenuk pointed out to me, “The big storms are still very complex and very difficult to figure out. … The joke sometimes in the thunderstorm community is a farmer can sneeze in Oklahoma and change the whole setup.”
Another potential problem is climate change. While climate and weather are different, the former may be having an impact on near-term forecasting accuracy.
Aditi Sheshadri the lead researcher of a 2021 study at Stanford University explored how warmer Earth temperatures will affect weather prediction. These researchers designed models that revolved around how different warming patterns could affect weather forecast accuracy in this and other parts of the world. What they found was a “pretty systematic relationship” between temperature changes and how far out you can accurately predict the weather. Sheshadri noted that we could make more accurate long-term forecasts “if the Earth was very much cooler.” As the Earth warms, “it’s the other way around, and this window of accurate weather prediction narrows.” According to the Stanford study, you lose a day of accurate precipitation forecasts for every rise of 3 degrees in Celsius (5.4 degrees in Fahrenheit).
It may not seem like much, but according to data from the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, Earth has warmed by .08 degrees Celsius (0.14 degrees Fahrenheit) every decade since 1880. By now, Earth is about 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than it was then. The World Meteorological Association warns that the Earth’s temperature will continue to rise over the next few years.
Here’s the bottom line: Those who love weather forecasting but don’t discuss climate change should understand the latter’s impact. Weather forecasting may not be as accurate as it could be because of climate change. While the author of this article is sold on climate change, I am not convinced of the impact that we have had on the weather. I will devote additional chapters on this subject. In my blog I have posted articles on climate change. I believe that I have shown that their were radical changes in our weather well before the industrialization of our planet. While it is true that we over the years have caused massive deforestation, the effects opn the climate have been limited to those areas. Case in point one example is the Yucatan Peninsula and the Mayan civilization. Their demise was brought upon them by mindless and thoughtless deforestation of the peninsula for the building of their roads and temples, which caused local drought conditions. The same thing happened on Easter Island (Rapa Nui) where the Polynesian inhabitants devastated their island wih deforestation all in the name of religion. They used the trees in order to transport the giant Moai statues as well as to build canoes and houses.
Since this book is about our world and how we can save it, there will be considerable time spent on how we can reverse the effects of many of our poor decisions and thoughtless actions over the centuries.
theconversation.com, “The science of weather forecasting: what it takes and why it’s so hard to get right.” By Victor Ongoma; localistories.org, “A History of the Origin of Meteorology as the Science of Weather.”; cnn.com, “What’s in the future for weather forecasting?” by Harry Enten;