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Extreme Weather: Can we use predictions to plan?

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 1:23 AM GMT on November 22, 2011

Extreme Weather: Can we use predictions to plan?

Been on an unexpected hiatus and coming back slowly. Thanks to Angela and Jeff for a bit of cover. First I want to regain my blogging legs a little and return to my previous entry on Politics, Events, and the Weather. In that entry I mentioned that Representative Ralph Hall announced that the Science, Space, and Technology Committee will start an investigation into NOAA and whether or not NOAA is forming an “unauthorized” climate service. Many federal agencies have been operating without a current year budget for a long time. I say that so that I can include the whole name of the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act that extends the Fiscal Year 2012 Continuing Resolution. If you want a good summary of budget information that includes climate and weather research then you might try this site. In the final negotiations for this Act, Congress prohibited NOAA from organizing existing resources to form a climate service.

Organizations such as the Reinsurance Association of American recognize the need to address climate change, and in fact they are taking action. Better collection, provision, and interpretation of climate information seem warranted, and that is the main purpose of the climate service reorganization.

At least implicitly, another call for better information comes from Congress - Representative Lynn Jenkins calls hearing on Missouri River Flooding. In 2011 there was an enormous flood of the Missouri River and many of its tributaries. This was one of several Billion Dollar Events during the summer of 2011 (see, Chris Burt, Weather.com, Earth and Sky).

In ClimateWatch Magazine there is a long article on the Missouri River Flood. As with many extreme events, several factors came together to cause this flood. There was large snowpack in both the Rocky Mountains and on the Plains in the Upper Missouri Basin. This was followed by heavy spring rains, that melted the snow yielding flows in May and June that equaled what is normally seen in the entire year. In this article there is also the description of the role of La Nina in the flood. La Nina is often described as the “negative” of El Nino. In the sense that El Nino is a warmer than average eastern Equatorial Pacific Ocean, La Nina is a cooler than average eastern Equatorial Pacific. It is well known that there are changes of weather patterns over the U.S. associated with El Nino and La Nina, but it is not so well known exactly what the impact of those changes might be.

This year we once again have a La Nina forming, and we have the prediction that it is highly likely that the event will persist and, perhaps, intensify. A question that arises is how can we better anticipate and plan for the consequences of the La Nina? Will we face another year of floods in the upper Missouri Valley? Will the drought continue in Texas? (Where I am collecting some El Nino – La Nina references.)

Figure 1. Characteristic position of wintertime jet streams during La Nina. From ClimateWatch Magazine: “The jet streams are high-altitude, racing rivers of air that can influence the path of storms as they track over North America from the Pacific Ocean. The jet streams meander and shift from day to day, but during La Niña events, they tend to follow paths that bring cold air and storms into the Upper Missouri River Basin. Map based on original graphics from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. Adapted by Richard Rivera & Hunter Allen.”

As a climate change blogger, I have some responsibility for bringing this blog a bit to climate change. Currently, I think a lot about how to use information from climate models. I argue that thinking about how we can use a 2011 La Nina prediction to assess the risk of 2012 Missouri River flood is a pretty good exercise. Compared to a 100 year projection, this is strong prediction. We need to understand how global models inform regional scales. We have a problem with complex interactions between different features of the Earth’s weather and climate. We learn how to work with people who have to assess risk and make decisions.

OK: Here is the link to the Montana Conservation District's website. And here is a quote from Montana farmer Buzz Mattelin’s testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Mattelin’s testimony is a remarkable summary and evaluation of the 2011 flood. Here’s one of Mattelin’s suggestions on how to improve the situation. He refers to the Corps, which is the Army Corps of Engineers who have the mission of managing the Missouri River.

“The Corps’ Annual Operating Plan (AOP) begins each new runoff year at a normal or average starting point when we rarely if ever have an average year. The Corps does a good job of incorporating mountain snowpack, plains snowpack, and short term precipitation into the AOP but falls short in using variables like soil moisture and climatic trends. Soil moisture data is readily available in weekly crop reports that rank soil moisture as short, adequate, or surplus. We should also look at El Nino and La Nina events. When you overlay past La Nina events with high runoff years in the Basin, there are definite correlations during the high runoff years in the 70’, 90’s and this year. Pacific Decadal Oscillation or PDO is another ocean temperature phenomenon that show promise as a predictor of precipitation on the Northern Plains. Incorporation of these types of variables into the AOP could significantly improve flood control.”

I will confess sitting in my office today talking about this problem, and we came pretty much to the same conclusion as Mattelin. Mattelin, many academic papers, and common sense say that if there are better forecasts, or perhaps more appropriately, longer lead times, then risk, damage, and cost can be reduced. We, the collective we, have much of the information that is required, but it is not all in one place. It is not all provided by a single agency. It is not integrated together towards a specific application like flooding in of the Missouri River. That service is not provided.

I am, let’s say, a minor participant in a project where over the next few months we will try to pull together this information and see if we can use this data better (initial link. If we can do it for a seasonal climate prediction, then we will learn to do it better for decadal climate projections. Stay tuned.


Here is a link to a new series on Green.TV on extreme weather. Let me know what you think.

And since people mentioned it ... Shearer and Rood on the media and extreme weather.

Climate Impacts and Risks Climate Models Extreme Weather

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.