As meteorologists gather in Boston this week to mark the 100th anniversary of the American Meteorological Society, they will celebrate one of our era’s greatest scientific accomplishments: the ability to forecast the weather.
A century ago, scientists had yet to demonstrate that weather could be predicted in any detail. Cities received notice of snow or rain moving toward them a day or two ahead of time, but they did not know the amount of precipitation or even if it would actually arrive.
Forecasters now can alert communities to major storms as much as a week or more in advance, filling in such details as the timing and location while putting realistic bounds on the uncertainties. These forecasts, which build on generations of research into the physics and chemistry of the atmosphere, use far-reaching observations and high-resolution weather models run on increasingly powerful supercomputers.
In spite of this progress, the United States is far from the world leader in weather forecasting skill. For decades, we have lagged behind overseas competitors, including the European Union and the meteorological office of the United Kingdom. This prevents our nation from protecting life and property as effectively as possible, and it represents a significant threat to our economic competitiveness and national security.
Weather affects an estimated 3.4 percent of the nation's GDP, or about $680 billion annually. Industries from agriculture to transportation rely on weather forecasts every day for decisions that have far-reaching economic ramifications. In addition, history has repeatedly demonstrated that military planners require trusted forecasts when mobilizing for sensitive operations. Much like technological advances in warfare, improvements in accurate and timely forecasts provide us with critical advantages over our adversaries.
To close the forecasting gap, Congress passed an innovative plan in 2018 to better coordinate the work of academic researchers and private weather companies with the National Weather Service. The goal: to ensure that forecasting technology utilizes the latest research in order to benefit the public.
This initiative, the Earth Prediction Innovation Center, aims to tear down long-standing barriers between researchers and forecasters that have resulted from them working in stovepipe environments with little focus on each other’s priorities. It is based, in part, on the strategy of leading forecasting centers such as the European Centre for Medium-range Weather Forecasts, which brings together leading researchers and forecasters at one location to work on a common computer model in order to continually improve predictions.
Congress is pressing for a new approach because of a growing recognition that improved forecasts must be a national priority. Our nation experiences more extreme weather than many other countries, and weather and climate disasters are extracting an ever-greater toll as the atmosphere warms and more Americans live in harm’s way. Last year marked the fifth consecutive year in which 10 or more billion-dollar disasters impacted the country, and the cumulative price of such events is costing the nation an average of about $100 billion annually. Complex weather systems, such as the storm that buried parts of Massachusetts in more than two feet of snow after Thanksgiving, often unfold in ways that are not well predicted far in advance.
The creation of EPIC was an important first step in providing Americans with the improved forecasts they need. Much more work, however, needs to be done.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the National Weather Service, faces fundamental decisions about how to organize EPIC and ensure its effectiveness. In particular, it must implement EPIC in a way that ensures ongoing collaborations between researchers and forecasters. This should include a modeling architecture enabling researchers to analyze forecast deficiencies and design improvements that forecasters can swiftly incorporate into their real-time predictions.
The depth and breadth of the US research community is second to none. However, these researchers have not been tied to the forecasting community to the extent needed to regain US supremacy in weather prediction. If implemented correctly, EPIC provides the needed platform to marshal this unique strength for the nation’s forecasting needs. In the field of hurricane prediction, for example, scientists are developing new computer model techniques that have the potential to significantly improve the prediction of a storm’s track and intensity, helping to better protect society as NOAA’s National Hurricane Center moves toward issuing seven-day forecasts in place of the current five-day forecasts.
Major advances in weather forecasting take time. For that reason, it is critical for the nation to move quickly to strengthen the pathway from research to forecasts. It took a century since the founding of the American Meteorological Society for weather forecasts to reach their current level of achievement. Future gains can and must occur far more rapidly. The progress that we make today will have enormous consequences for our ability to protect lives and property, maintain economic competitiveness, and strengthen our national security.
Antonio J. Busalacchi is the president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. Kerry Emanuel is a professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT.