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Is a Better Forecast in Our Future?

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A recent new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- the SREX -- addresses the issue of extreme weather and climate change, and how likely it is that those two are related. Among the changes that the report says are very likely to occur worldwide due to a changing climate are a general decrease in the number of cold days and nights, and a general increase in the number of warm days and nights. Significant changes in precipitation and drought patterns are also mentioned, as well as an increase in hurricane wind speed and a great likelihood that rainfall and temperature extremes will play a role in landslides and floods in high altitudes. However, there is less certainty about natural climate patterns or other climate-driven shifts in weather events.

The World Resources Institute also recently released a report, "Decision making in a changing climate," which acknowledges that climate change complicates decision making through its complexity and uncertainty. Uncertainty about how climate systems will respond, how climate change will interact with other drivers of stress and risk, how ecosystems will respond -- all affect the uncertainty about climate impacts. One of the main challenges is uncertainty about how changes will unfold and what the impacts will be on critical functions performed by physical, hydrological, and ecological systems -- all of which are affected by extreme weather events. Risks posed by extreme events will require decision makers to make difficult choices.

Add to all that the uncertainty about the amount of emissions that will be spewed in the atmosphere in the upcoming years (and that will influence weather and climate), and about the outcome of the climate talks at the UNFCCC COP17 happening right now in Durban.

Wouldn't it be nice if there were a little less uncertainty in this whole business?

Enter "Yellowstone," a new supercomputer commissioned by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) which, due to its capabilities, is expected to not only reduce uncertainty in weather predictions, but also quantify that uncertainty in a useful way for decision makers. IBM recently won the bid to build Yellowstone, which will be located at a new NCAR Wyoming facility, and IBM staffers are enthused about the possibilities. Lloyd Treinish, research head of Deep Thunder, a project at IBM focusing on local weather forecasting tailored to weather-sensitive business operations, has deep knowledge of the new system, and is very optimistic about the new possibilities it can introduce into weather and climate research. He mentions that the complexity of the models, the management of data, and the analysis and visualization of the results are a growing challenge in weather and climate modeling, and Yellowstone will be able to effectively address classes of problems that could not be well addressed before.

Yellowstone is not only bigger and faster, but it is also "smarter." The sheer computational capability of Yellowstone will allow for exploration of new dimensions in modeling. Dr. Andrew Gettelman, a scientist at NCAR who will be working with Yellowstone, agrees. He believes that the ability to see and quantify different levels of uncertainty at different scales will be a big improvement in weather modeling and forecasts, one that will allow for better use of the information coming from the models when it comes to decision making, preparedness, and risk and resource management. He exemplifies his point with the tornados that ripped through the Midwest this year: the tornados were predicted, but the level of uncertainty with the timing and location of the expected tornados did not allow enough time for useful preparations "on the ground." Dr. Gettelman expects the new system to have substantial societal impact because of better forecasts of extreme events and better measurement of the uncertainty associated with them.

In addition, Yellowstone will allow for the setup of new types of simulation to look at events in a climate context, which will help understand climatic patterns, which will in turn affect future weather predictions. So, all in all, our weather future is looking much brighter -- and predictable. Yellowstone is expected to be up and running by next summer. I for one will be looking at forecasts in a completely different way.

The views expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of Defenders of Wildlife.

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