Meteorologists see the opportunities presented by climate change, but cringe when they talk about it

CHICAGO — Jim Anderson winced as he said opportunity. He paused at the word as about 20 weather industry professionals sat in folding chairs in front of him.

Anderson didn’t want to sound greedy or, worse, cheerful. But climate change, he reiterated, is an opportunity for them, even if they “wish they could live without it.” Yet here they were, a gathering of dataminers, weather instrument makers, and climate scientists at the recent Meteorological Technology World Expo in Rosemont, Illinois, hoping to ease that pain.

After all, according to Anderson, it’s not just “philosophical ambition that will save the day.”

We need radiometers, scintillometers, weather balloons, tsunami detectors, tornado detectors, lightning detectors, volcanic ash monitors, moisture sensors, climate data modeling software, fog sensors, rain gauges, radar, anemometers, and barometers.

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He told them, “The math is simple and not controversial.”

He told them, “Our heads and our hearts must come together.”

He told them about 80% of climate change is solvable, and many of the people who are on this floor of Congress right now would be part of those solutions.

Then, after half an hour, Anderson descended from the podium and waded into the small crowd. He was a thoughtful, slim man in a plaid suit. I asked him why he felt the need to tell these people of all people that climate change math is not controversial.

“Because our industry, like others, struggles with how to talk about it,” he said. “Not for political reasons, but because the culture of weather engineers is introspective and scientific and we don’t always express our importance well. But what if the weather becomes less predictable? We need better data systems and analytics and…”

The chief meteorologist from a major airline passed by.

Anderson apologized and shook hands.

Humble Assembly: The Meteorological Technology World Expo was a modest gathering – so modest that some local weather experts were unaware it was taking place – but it brought together research institutes and marine engineers and environmental agencies and, of course, many meteorologists.

They discussed advances in lightning detection and data on wildfires and jet streams, as well as corporate risk assessment and Doppler radars. They talked about the cost of extreme weather; Last year was the third costliest for weather disasters in this country. You talked about AI modelling; National security; the magnitude of hail on golf courses.

But beneath many of the sales pitches and meetings and speeches simmered an even simpler math: The people in this room don’t control the weather. You couldn’t stop climate change alone. But with the right tools and better observations, could they warn more people sooner? You’ve heard the word “mitigation” many times. You’ve heard “resilience.”

Also “opportunity”.

Jan Dutton, CEO of Prescient Weather, stood behind a booth showcasing data software called Crop Prophet and World Climate Service. Like Anderson, he apologized for his choice of words, “but climate change will be the biggest opportunity for weather information services like us. There may be a limit to science and even a limit to predictability, but when we reinterpret data in new ways, we extract a little bit more predictability.”

The nature of the weather: Rosemont is home to conventions on anime and comic books and horror movies and tattoos and campers and fitness instructors, but also the occasional truly existential issue.

You see, weather is inherently natural.

That is, chaotic, complex, and in a sense lawless. So the marketing slogans draped here on the stands promised a degree of control. Or at least a hope of collegiality with the weather itself. The banners read: “Forecast the Future”, “Number One by Nature”, “Reliable by Nature”. Which of course wasn’t entirely possible, not in the literal sense.

Emily Jackson and Amy Stephens, weather forecasters with Hennepin County Emergency Management in Minnesota (which includes Minneapolis), walked the plush blue carpet, passing booth after booth. “The longer we have, the better we can warn the public,” Jackson said. “So we’re thinking about what technology there is, what the new sensors look like.”

“We get a little bit of everything at Hennepin,” Stephens said.

“Snow of course. And high wind events,” Jackson said.

“Our problem is that the district is so big, it includes the cities, the rural…”

“You tend to worry if you have enough network everywhere now.”

More sensors, more data: When you asked weather experts what they need to prepare for the impacts of climate change, you heard one theme: more sensors in more places, outputting more data. Tom Young of weather instrument company RM Young in Traverse City, Michigan said, “Meteorologists want more and cheaper equipment to cover an area.”

He was surrounded by a metal forest of ultrasonic anemometers (to measure wind speed) and vision sensors for road conditions (resembling the warships of alien empires).

“The joke everywhere, in every place on earth, is wait five minutes, the weather changes. The thing is, that’s true! Because the weather is driven by forces we don’t always recognize.”

Long-term forecasts: In fact, two studies, one in 2019 at Stockholm University and one earlier this year at Stanford University, claimed that beyond the obvious catastrophic effects, a warmer planet means long-term predictions lose some steam.

The Stanford study linked a rise in planetary temperature to a day’s loss of certainty; The Stockholmer, more specifically, said the forecast of summer rains, and therefore flooding, will become more fuzzy.

These impacts are expected to be disproportionately dramatic in poorer countries, which is why engineer Martin Steinson and project manager Kathryn Payne of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Colorado stood next to an impressive array of weather instruments that have been fully 3D printed.

“A commercial weather station costs anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 and is always difficult to maintain,” Steinson said, “so a lot of countries can’t get a decent one unless they have an old station that’s donated to them by another country.” However, this is quality and costs $500 or maybe less, and if the device needs it, an update can just be printed out.”

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That, said Paul Deanno, a meteorologist at WMAQ-Channel 5, is the kind of real-world innovation that would make an impact even in a Midwest city like Chicago.

“We live in a country full of wonderful technology, but the weather doesn’t start in this country. It starts in places where good data may not exist, and so in a way we become reliant on bad data to contribute to a weather model. But if we could populate parts of Canada, Africa, and China with better data collection, it could help everyone downstream.

“But any extreme tornado event caused by climate change in 20 days? We’ll never be able to predict that – although we could have more data to better prepare for it.”

Good news: The good news is that the prognosis is better.

“Earth has been experiencing human-caused climate change for decades, and objective weather forecasts have improved over that time,” said Daniel Horton, leader of the Climate Change Research Group at Northwestern University.

He cited the recent heatwave in the UK as an example. “Weather forecasts predicted these record-breaking conditions weeks in advance, even though such conditions have never occurred before.”

William Passalaqua, an engineer with the Chicago bureau of the National Weather Service, said he attended the show in part because old equipment was in dire need of an upgrade. He figured he would walk the entire convention in 15 minutes. In the end he only spent half an hour at the first two booths.

This new stuff was too good.

AI modeling that takes into account the history and geography of a measured region. Rain gauges that do away with tipping buckets and use sonic sensors that measure the speed, frequency, and size of raindrops.

“There’s so much pressure now to disclose government data — coming from the world’s NASAs and NOAAs — everyone wants to gain insight into climate scenarios,” said Josh Grail, a solutions engineer at the Environmental Systems Research Institute. His company had recently worked with AT&T to study how climate change might affect its infrastructure and was working with the federal government on a new website (Heat.gov) to predict extreme heat events.” “But that’s also a two-headed one Sword: The better the modelling, the messier the picture you get.”

It was 82 degrees and sunny in Rosemont as he spoke.

Elsewhere, however, there was a drought in New England, flooding in Mississippi, and extreme heat and fears of probable wildfires in California. But you can’t say they didn’t see it coming.

About Mike Crayton

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