How to Improve Weather Forecasting

Weather causes damage even when a hurricane, tornado, blizzard or flood isn’t making the news. Forewarned is forearmed, and we can improve weather forecasting by gathering more data, improving computer modeling and enlisting public help.

♦ More data

Today’s weather forecasts are more accurate than at any other time in recorded history, thanks to satellite networks, ground weather stations and local reports, but long-term forecast accuracy is still a problem. Some weather satellites are reaching the end of their usefulness. All satellites, which are solar powered, must shut down while in in Earth’s shadow to conserve energy, forcing meteorologists to follow a daily satellite eclipse schedule that limits data modeling.  

Development of a safe, long-lasting satellite power source that is independent of the sun could greatly improve the efficiency of the world’s existing weather satellite fleet. In the meantime, we must continue to maintain or replace existing equipment as needed. In October 2011, a new polar orbiter was sent up both as a bridge between the existing older spacecraft in NASA’s Earth Observing System and the planned future generation of satellites, as well to provide additional data from Earth’s entire surface twice a day.

Airports have traditionally hosted National Weather Service stations throughout the United States, but smaller airports are facing many challenges in these tough economic times. In July 2011, for example, 13 rural airports faced closure during a political struggle on Capitol Hill over funding for the Federal Aviation Agency, according to MarketWatch. A backup support system in which local, county or state governments might guarantee operation of the weather-monitoring equipment when a small airport closes would keep current data streams flowing. As well, reliable public and private sector site alternatives should be considered. In a better economy, the additional instrumentation at these sites will also supplement and improve data.

Some weather systems, particularly tropical cyclones, form over the oceans, where there are few people to gather ground details that may be crucial in determining the system’s future course. Reports from sea-going vessels help meteorologists make forecasts, but expanded buoy networks outside regular shipping lanes would greatly boost the amount of available ocean-based weather data.

♦ Improve computer modeling

The National Hurricane Center in the US has earned the respect of meteorologists worldwide for its accurate forecasts of tropical cyclones in the Atlantic and eastern Pacific oceans. However, their computer modeling accuracy is still limited over the long term, with large errors between 3- to 4-day forecasts and actual conditions and storm tracks, as a sample forecast advisory from 2009’s Hurricane Bill shows.

Existing computer weather models are good, but improvements in computer technology can boost their long-term performance as well as provide short-term benefits.  In the US, for example, a 3D weather visualization system being developed by the Georgia Institute of Technology is expected to improve severe weather forecasting by allowing meteorologists to include data on terrain, buildings and human activity in their modeling.

♦ Enlist the public

In the US, the National Weather Service encourages people who are interested in public service and who have access to a communication systems like ham radio to join their Skywarn program as severe weather spotters. Similar programs are available in European countries.

Certainly, with such a pool of knowledgeable individuals in today’s developed countries, much useful information is being obtained for meteorologists, but many parts of the world are still out of the loop. Another way to improve weather forecasting is to obtain reliable basic ground data (temperature, wind speed and direction, and atmospheric pressure and other conditions) from as many continents and islands as possible. This could be done through a combination of educational programs and the establishment of basic weather stations at local schools, aid distribution points and other important centers along with training and incentives for their ongoing operation.

It can be difficult, especially in a sluggish economy, to justify current levels of spending on weather science, let alone to increase its funding. No one can see how many lives and how much money this improved forecasting ability saves, but we most definitely can improve weather forecasting if we want to. Do we have the will to act before disaster strikes?