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Putting the “Fore” in Forecasting

People love to complain about the weather – and especially about weather forecasters. But real, accurate forecasting beyond five to seven days is immensely complicated, due to the sheer volume of atmospheric processes and factors. Fortunately for us, advances in computing are making it possible for mathematicians, atmospheric scientists and statisticians to create “models of everything,” which may lead to accurate long-range weather forecasts.

NC State mathematician John Harlim is working on one such “model of everything,” specifically for longer-range weather and climate prediction. He’s part of a five-year project led by NYU’s Andrew Majda that is creating simpler, less expensive stochastic models (a model that includes random variables) for extended range weather and climate prediction.

One major stumbling block to extending and improving weather predictions beyond seven-day forecasts is a lack of understanding of the tropical weather dynamics that drive global weather patterns. The mix of factors in these patterns is amazingly complex. According to Harlim, “The dynamics in the tropics involve hierarchies of processes on both huge scales – like, 10,000 km – and much smaller scales over many months.  Physical processes in individual clouds can affect these larger processes in the long run.

“In terms of a model, then, you would have to resolve the entire globe in one kilometer chunks, look at every possible weather pattern that could possibly occur over every moment given all sorts of variables, and then scale it up,” Harlim adds. Since this approach is very expensive, computationally speaking, Harlim and his colleagues hope to develop simpler, cheaper models that can capture tropical dynamics and understand their interactions with extratropical weather patterns.

Says Harlim, “Understanding tropical dynamics is the Holy Grail of atmospheric modeling, and if we’re successful, you’ll be able to get accurate weather forecasting for months, not just days, in advance.”

Atmospheric scientist Sukanta Basu is part of a team working on a “model of everything” for atmospheric turbulence by studying airflow over complex terrain, including islands. The team wants to understand how atmospheric turbulence affects laser propagations, but their work could have other applications as well – such as predicting microbursts for aircraft safety, or estimating evaporation rates for water management in agriculture. And just like Harlim’s, Basu’s model will have to take a huge number of factors into account.

“We’ll be looking at 10 meter terrain maps, finding out every spatial location and time and what the atmospheric field may look like,” Basu says. “The amount of computational power needed is huge – one simulation can fill up a terabyte disk – so we’re looking at petascale computing, which can do a quadrillion operations per second. Ten years ago we didn’t have computing on this scale, so projects like this were impossible.”