NOAA

New NOAA weather prediction system improves severe weather forecasts

By Lucia Whalen
Medill Reports

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration updated its weather prediction system this June with a climate model that will include data from updated oceanic science, allowing for more accurate climate change-related severe weather forecasting.

The new weather model, called Finite-Volume Cube-Sphere dynamical core (FV3), also provides faster forecasts and can assess storm movement at the county level as weather extremes accelerate in an increasingly unstable climate.

Joellen Russell, a professor of biogeochemical dynamics at the University of Arizona at Tucson worked on the previous model and views the upgraded climate model as critical to understanding how extreme weather will manifest itself in floods, hurricanes and other assaults as a result of climate change.

Russell calls this new weather collection system a revolution in oceanography and climate science. “When people say “Oh, I don’t believe those climate models,” I say, “Did you like your forecast? Thank an oceanographer,” Russell said. Her research focuses on the role of the oceans on climate.

The new system integrates a holistic picture of climate science that includes both information on atmosphere and the ocean, where the previous models only included the atmosphere. This is a major change, as the ocean collects 93% of all excess heat from global warming, while only 7% goes to the atmosphere.

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Joellen Russell at the Comer Climate Conference, where she discussed her work with the Argo floats with glacial scientists and oceanographer (Elena Bruess/Medill)

In order to understand how much heat is collected by the oceans, the National Science Foundation and NOAA funded a project in 2004 that deploys robots into the ocean to measure temperature and other variables. These robots, known as Argo floats, collect properties of the ocean over the course of 10 days and transmit that information to satellites, which allows for more accurate weather forecasting.

Beckie Beadling, a Ph.D. candidate whose research is focused on climate modeling in the Southern Ocean, compares data collected from the Argo floats with climate model simulations. According to Beadling, also of the University of Arizona, understanding how heat is captured and transported by the ocean is essential for projecting the future of future weather systems. “Our future weather and what we experience every day is going to be largely determined by what happens in the oceans.”

Including both oceanic and atmospheric information in the weather prediction system is essential, as a warming ocean directly impacts increased precipitation and drought conditions with water vapor transported to the atmosphere.

“The reason we’re seeing more precipitation extremes – flooding, storms, etc. – is because the oceans are warming and this is why the weather service had to switch to a climate model, which is an ocean-atmosphere model, not just an atmosphere model,” Russell said.

Understanding the workings of both the ocean and atmosphere is essential to tracking how climate change will have real-world consequences for everyday people, especially when it comes to flooding. While oceans collect much more heat than the atmosphere, the atmosphere transports more heat through the wind systems, dropping off water in certain areas and not others.

Areas such as the Midwest will see increasingly intense downpours, while areas such as California and Arizona will see increased droughts. Russell sees a need for the public to be better informed on these climate systems in order to prepare for adaptation and mitigation.

“If you know how to install French drains you’re going to make a lot of money,” Russell joked. “Adaptation is when we put in a French drain and make sure our house doesn’t go away, but mitigation would be everybody reducing their emissions so we just don’t hit the very worst of this. And I’m hoping with communication we can do both.”

The new FV3 climate system can assess storm movement at the county level. (NOAA)