Student-Scientist Discussion M...

Student-Scientist Discussion Maps the Weather-Climate Intersection

Climate and weather are inextricably linked. Weather happens on the scales of minutes to weeks, while climate characteristics are the effects of weather averaged over the longer term – weeks to years or decades or more. Weather forecasting has evolved to be remarkably accurate, however forecasts created for periods beyond seven to 10 days get increasingly less reliable. To a large degree, prediction difficulties come down to deficiencies in the quality or quantity of observational data and computer modeling capabilities. Even more than in other regions of the world, predictions and forecasting of tropical climate and weather are made difficult due to the less complete understanding of how tropical convection couples to the large-scale atmospheric dynamics.

In recent years, buoyed by improvements in numerical modeling and more and better observational data, forecasting of longer term weather and climate has improved. These improved forecasts have both improved scientific understanding and expanded current forecasting accuracy. This reality has made possible a more informed study of where and how weather and climate influences and dynamics intersect. In addition to scientific advances, new understanding will inform economic and societal issues related to weather and climate. For example, an improved understanding of what weather extremes might be expected further into the future and how to best prepare for these will benefit the public, as well as those working in industry, such as insurance, finance, energy, and transportation.

“Among the topics that fall within this weather-climate intersection is the Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO) – a 30- to 60-day pattern of eastward moving precipitation and convection that occurs along the equator,” explains George Kiladis, a research meteorologist in the Earth Systems Research Laboratory at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “This ‘holy grail’ of tropical weather systems was in fact discovered at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) by Rol Madden and Paul Julian back in 1971, and researchers are still working hard to understand it completely.”

When active, the MJO accounts for about a quarter to a third of the resulting precipitation in the tropics, and also strongly affects the weather and the climate of global regions beyond the tropics. If the current models get the MJO right, it might be possible to extend accurate medium-range weather forecasts out another several days, Kiladis says.

Students studying atmospheric science are well aware of atmospheric phenomena such as the MJO and El Niño, and understand that these events have both weather and climate effects, but few move beyond this recognition to consider the interaction between climate and weather in greater detail. Additionally, many students focus on climate and weather phenomena occurring in regions beyond the tropics (i.e., the extratropics) rather than looking at tropical weather and climate in depth. With the recent advances in understanding and technical and observational capabilities, these areas of study offer exciting new research frontiers, not least because atmospheric events happening within the boundaries of the weather-climate intersection have significant impacts on the ocean-atmosphere system over a wide range of space and time scales.

Recognizing these gaps in student experience, Lance Bosart, a distinguished professor from the University at Albany, Kiladis, and Mitch Moncrieff, a senior scientist at NCAR successfully proposed running a three-week program for graduate students that covered these topics for NCAR’s annual Advanced Study Program (ASP).

“We’d been thinking about this topic as an ASP colloquium for at least five years,” says Bosart. “We have all benefited from ASP colloquia when we were students and early career scientists – as have many of the speakers at the 2012 colloquium. Not only is this a topic that we’re all interested in – it’s the way forward for both synoptic meteorology and climate research – but it gives us an opportunity to give back to the ASP program and the science community.”

Titling the program, “The Weather-Climate Intersection: Advances and Challenges,” the first week consisted mostly of foundational lectures on climate and weather, with discussions on the final project, a course requirement, beginning at the end of the week. The second week brought together scientists specializing in the weather-climate intersection who work on related phenomena such as the MJO, El Niño-Southern Oscillation, and midlatitude jet streams and blocking. In addition to lecturing, they had a rare opportunity to talk to their peers for a prolonged span of time, with many of the researchers staying for more than just the middle week. The third week featured lectures from recent PhD graduates on relevant topics, and saw students pushing to finish and present their final projects. Speakers were not limited to those working in government-funded labs or academia; several speakers came from private industry, an area that stands to benefit from the increased understanding of weather and climate.

“We designed the program intentionally to maximize the time that students had with the world-class researchers in this field, while also giving them an opportunity to meet and spend time with the cohort they are likely to work with throughout their careers,” Moncrieff says. “In addition, by inviting early-career speakers, we hoped to show students a variety of future possible job options – the challenge of melding weather and climate certainly requires bright new minds.”

“The students enjoyed the colloquium, but the researchers also enjoyed it because they had a chance to catch up on the state of others’ research,” Bosart says. “The students pushed these discussions further by asking questions of the scientists on topics that often hadn’t been considered for decades, or on stuff we generally take for granted, which gave all of us things to think about.”

An innovation added to this year’s colloquium that Kiladis saw as extremely useful were “map discussions.” A tradition in the University at Albany’s atmospheric sciences department, the colloquium’s morning lectures covered weather characteristics from a theoretical perspective, while afternoon map discussions led by Bosart or other lecturers offered an opportunity to show real-time weather maps illustrating the type of phenomena discussed in the morning. Looking at the maps helped continue the discussion, offering a way of cementing the theoretical ideas with reality, Kiladis explains.