The Weather: What’s the Outlook?

New sources of atmospheric observations, faster supercomputers and advances in science together revolutionized weather forecasting in the latter part of the 20th century. On the global scale, we can today predict out to five days ahead as accurately as we could do for two days 20 years ago. This means society has much more advance warning of weather hazards than before, permitting people to prepare and, thereby, limit the loss of lives and property. Expectations are high for even greater advances in the years to come. From 16 to 21 August 2014, the first World Weather Open Science Conference (WWOSC-2014) “The weather: what’s the outlook?” was held in Montreal, Canada. The WMO, Environment Canada, the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the National Research Council of Canada co-organized the event. As weather science advances, critical questions are arising about the possible sources of predictability on weekly, monthly and longer time-scales; seamless prediction; and the effective use of massively-parallel supercomputers. The science is primed for a step forward and is informed by the realization that there can be predictive power on all space and time-scales arising from currently poorly-understood sources of potential predictability. Consequently, the time was right for a major Open Science Conference to examine the rapidly changing scientific and socio-economic drivers of weather science.

WWOSC/© Jacques Lavigne/Amethyste CommunicationMel Shapiro (right), keynote speaker at the World Weather Open Science Conference opening ceremony with Alan Thorpe (left)

The Conference was designed to draw the whole research community together to review the frontiers of knowledge and to act as an international stimulus for the science and its future. Hence WWOSC-2014 considered the current state-of-the-art and the future evolution of weather science, as well as related environmental services, and how these need to be supported by research. It was particularly exciting to bring together the international community – including those starting out in science and those with longer experience – to review progress and set the long-term agenda. There has never been a more important time for weather science, which is poised for great breakthroughs. Society is extremely vulnerable to weather-related impacts, and it desperately needs those breakthroughs. 

The first objective of WWOSC-2014 was to review the state of knowledge in weather and weather-prediction science and thereby create a roadmap for the legacy of The Observing System Research and Predictability Experiment (THORPEX), a 10-year programme coordinated by WMO, which ended in 2014. This will also enable an update of the World Weather Research Programme strategic plan (see The World Weather Research Programme: a 10-year vision). The second objective was to explore the many applications of weather prediction to the natural environment. The Earth System Prediction approach for weather and environmental phenomena is seen as an effective way to better address the socio-economic demands for weather services.

The third objective was to encourage a new generation of research scientists who can contribute to new and advanced Earth system prediction models (see Early Career Scientists in Bulletin 63(2) – 2014). The final was to raise the visibility and importance of strong and vibrant world-weather science research that is in harmony with the needs of operational weather services and their public and the private sector stakeholders.

WWOSC/© Jacques Lavigne/Amethyste CommunicationRadio-Canada interviews WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud

The overarching theme of WWOSC-2014 was “Seamless Prediction of the Earth System: from minutes to months.” The Conference was structured around two programmes: Science and User, and Application and Social Sciences. The role of the programme organizers – Gilbert Brunet, Sarah Jones, and Brian Mills – was substantial; they contributed hugely to the success of the conference. The science presented ranged from the basic research that extends knowledge of processes and methods to the applied research required to put the prediction system together and assess the impacts of weather and climate events. The Science programme had five themes: Data assimilation and observations; Predictability and dynamical/physical/chemical processes; Interactions between sub-systems; Prediction of the Earth system: putting it all together; and Impacts of weather and climate events. The Social Science programme had four session categories on: The goods and services economy; Government organizations and functions; Disaster risk reduction and management; and Communication of weather information through broadcast, print or social media.

The Conference attracted over 1 000 public and private-sector meteorologists, forecasters, social scientists and application developers from over 50 countries around the globe, making it a resounding success. Another measure of that success was the media coverage received. During the event, media representatives from 9 countries conducted 90 interviews on ahost of conference topics.

Toward further breakthroughs

WWOSC/© Jacques Lavigne/Amethyste CommunicationVincent Champagne from SRS Radio-Canada interviews Gilbert Brunet 

Conference speakers, panellists and the audience discussed the feasibility of achieving major breakthroughs in weather science at the same pace as in the last 20 to 30 years. They investigated diverse scenarios for the development of weather applications in various fields, focusing most often on the prediction of extreme weather hazards.

The scientific goal of achieving seamless predictions – a common core (or integrated) modelling system for all weather applications at short and long time scales, from a few minutes to weeks, month and years ahead – received strong support from all participants. The integration of weather and climate, between the science and users and between nations on observing the atmosphere, is an important objective for the next decade. The Conference more specifically explored the integration of weather with hydrology for flood forecasting and weather with atmospheric chemistry for air quality forecasting.

Three plenary panel discussions focused on increasing the collaboration between the government, academia, the private sector and professional associations on The Future of the Weather Enterprise. The article on page 14 provides highlights of the sessions, which were so well received that the American Meteorological Society planned a similar event for its next meeting.

Moving towards Earth System Modelling

Society is hugely vulnerable to weather events. Weather science and forecasts help save lives, reduce damage and provide economic opportunities. The next generation of weather scientists and practitioners – early career scientists – are eager to move weather forecasting skill forward. They actively took part in the conference and discussed the possibility of forming an association for young weather, climate and environment scientist dedicated to working together to hone the application of weather sciences.

At the end of this Conference, it seems apparent that over the next 20 years, forecasters are likely to move towards Earth system modelling. Today’s seamless weather forecasts and climate predictions could evolve towards seamless weather-climate-impacts forecasting. Highly sophisticated models will incorporate more and more of the Earth system’s components and processes. In addition to the atmosphere and oceans, they will integrate increasingly accurate information on topography, land-use change, vegetation, rivers, lakes, clouds and socio-economic trends to provide user-specific decision-support services that will touch almost every part of our lives.

One important legacy of the Conference will be a peer-reviewed publication that will encompass the results of the discussions and presentations from both programmes. It is also expected that some of these results will be the subject of a communication to the World Meteorological Congress in May/June 2015.

How to structure seamless prediction research?

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland offers an excellent example: the world-class weather forecasting and climate prediction of the Met Office have once source. And the Met Office is integrating more and more of its weather and climate research. How? By bringing together all research and development under a single Director of Science, by forming a new directorate in Foundation Science and by establishing a programme for joint innovative activities. “This new directorate, called Foundation Science, underpins everything we do between weather and climate,” said Julia Slingo, the Met Office Chief Scientist responsible for scientific research and development. In the past, the separation between weather forecasting and climate prediction was understandable, but that is less and less the case. Increasingly hazardous weather is one of the most profound impacts of climate variability and change. In addition, there is greater interest in sub-seasonal to decadal forecasts among decision-makers. Thus, there is a clear need for a more seamless approach to modelling and prediction.        

World Weather Open Science videos, including that of Julia Slingo addressing, are available online.



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