Tue, Nov 06, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Too early to link Sandy to climate change

The world will need more cooperation in the coming years in weather forecasting, both to encourage developments in forecasting capability and to gain the time needed to prepare for disaster

By J. Marshall Shepherd and John Knox

Advances in numerical weather forecasting during the past several decades have extended our ability to “see” into the future. In September 1938, before all of these advances, a hurricane devastated much of New England. No warnings were issued prior to its arrival. Today, thanks to satellites, weather balloons, supercomputers and skilled forecasters, we can anticipate hazardous weather up to a week in advance. Similar advances in climate modeling are occurring, thanks to methodological improvements and better data.

At a minimum, we must ensure that world-class weather and climate-modeling centers have the necessary funding and manpower to implement the most advanced forecasting techniques. Numerical weather forecasting was invented in the US, but today other countries have developed extremely high modeling capacity. For example, the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, in the UK, was targeting an East Coast landfall for Sandy days ahead of the best US model.

The world will need more cooperation in the coming years, as climate change begins to interact with and exacerbate extreme weather events, in order to gain the lead-time needed to prepare for disasters. We will also need the collaboration among governments, the private sector and academia that often leads to improvements in forecasting.

Scientific meetings are key forums for sharing research, vetting new methodologies and forging new partnerships. Many occur on an international basis, and we need to encourage such discourse, even in tough times for government budgets. It is reasonable to ask how well we would be able to predict or assess a storm like Sandy without the knowledge and capacity gained through such international collaboration.

We do not know whether superstorms like Sandy are harbingers of a “new normal” in the uneasy and unpredictable relationship between climate change and extreme weather events. That does not mean that there is not or cannot be such a connection, but rather that the scientific research needed to prove (or disprove) it must still be conducted. That is how good science works. Sandy has provided a powerful demonstration of the need to support it.

J. Marshall Shepherd, director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia, is president-elect of the American Meteorological Society. John Knox, a professor of geography at the University of Georgia, received the National Weather Association’s highest research award, the T. Theodore Fujita Research Achievement Award.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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