“Such funding cuts would be especially unfortunate at a time
when the nation is moving to regain its position as the world leader
in weather forecasting,” said Antonio Busalacchi, president of the
University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, in a statement[
soon after the proposed budget was unveiled. He goes on to assert
that these reductions “would have serious repercussions for the
U.S. economy and national security, and for the ability to protect
life and property.”
Our Weather Changes as Our Climate Changes
The inferior state of weather technology in the United States and the
lack of future funding will undoubtedly have serious consequences
in the near term—both on the accuracy of your local forecast and
for organizations where actuaries depend on weather predictions
to do their jobs and properly assess risk.
But increasingly, the long-term consequences of weather and
climate forecasts are becoming the defining issue of the 21st century.
The science behind climate change should be well-proven and
well-known but is worth briefly revisiting as context here:
■ ■ Global temperatures continue to soar, with 2016 going down as
the hottest year on record after breaking the prior record set in
2015—which, in turn, broke 2014’s record.[ 7] Three consecutive
years of record-breaking temperatures never previously occurred
in 137 years of meteorological data. To top it off, the 12 warmest
years on record have all occurred since 1998.
■ ■ According to NASA satellite observations, Arctic sea ice is
declining at a rate of 13. 3 percent per decade,[ 8] down from
almost 8 million square kilometers in 1980 to under 5 million
kilometers at present.
■ ■ As a result, sea-level rise has accelerated from less than half an
inch per decade before 1990 to a rate of 1. 22 inches for the 10
years from 1993 to 2012.[ 9]
These are scientific facts about our planet’s climate right now
and should not be in dispute.
However, there’s an important difference between facts about
climate and facts about the weather. And that difference includes
how the certainty of climate contrasts with the uncertainty of
“The difference between weather and climate is a measure of
time,” said Samenow of the Washington Post. “Weather is what
conditions of the atmosphere are over a short period of time,
and climate is how the atmosphere ‘behaves’ over relatively long
periods of time.”
In other words, it is perfectly plausible for global warming
to exist over the past few decades even if a storm system brings
unseasonably cold temperatures for a week or two. As the Earth’s
climate changes, it’s not simply as easy as adding a degree or two
to daily temperature forecasts across the board.
In truth, meteorologists in 2017 have the challenging task of
updating existing modeling to reflect a “new normal” in the Earth’s
atmosphere where volatile conditions are increasingly common.
This difficulty is perhaps most visible through the recent increase
in extreme weather events and the importance of forecasting these
events accurately to protect public safety and business interests.
Warmer temperatures worldwide are altering ocean currents,
causing more evaporation and resulting precipitation, and alto-
gether redefining how weather systems behave.
“A changing climate leads to changes in the frequency, inten-
sity, spatial extent, duration, and timing of extreme weather and
climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather
and climate events,” wrote the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change,[ 10] an independent group of scientists convened by the
Traditionally, these kind of extreme events have been things
like hurricanes. However, the IPCC also noted that a changing
climate can increase the risk that more common weather events
work together to create serious problems, too.
“Extreme impacts can also result from nonextreme events
where exposure and vulnerability are high,” the IPCC wrote,
giving the example of “drought, coupled with extreme heat and
low humidity,” which could in turn “increase the risk of wildfire.”
means that previous notions of weather—including everything
from ocean currents to average temperatures to the number of
tornadoes in a given ZIP code—are not fixed.
Overlaid with the challenges of underfunding new forecasting
technology in the United States, even subtle and slow climate
changes over the next decade could have serious implications for
the accuracy of local forecasts—particularly those several days or
weeks in the future.
Can Forecasting Ever Be Perfect?
Of course, some would contend that a desire to know the weather
next month with 100 percent accuracy is a rather persnickety goal.
After all, many believe the current state of weather forecasting is
more than adequate.
Data wonk Nate Silver laid out the improving track record of
meteorologists in a bluntly titled article a few years back, “The
An Imperfect Storm
A changing climate leads to changes in
the frequency, intensity, spatial extent,
duration, and timing of extreme weather
and climate events, and can result in
unprecedented extreme weather and