As the nation’s leading experts in weather, water, and climate converge on Denver next week for the annual conference of the American Meteorological Society, their expertise is more essential than ever for Colorado. Our state, like the rest of the nation, is facing increasingly costly disasters, and our future safety and prosperity relies on the ability of the meteorological community to improve forecasts and better communicate them.
Since the AMS was founded in 1919, scientists have made extraordinary gains in forecasting. Drawing on satellite data, advanced computer models, and other technologies that were largely unimaginable a century ago, meteorologists have, at their fingertips, the capability to alert communities to powerful storms a week or more in advance. Such forecasts have become so essential that airlines relied on them when canceling thousands of flights just before Christmas when meteorologists predicted that a “bomb cyclone” would impact much of the country.
Meteorologists have also moved beyond traditional weather forecasts, working with scientists in other disciplines to alert society to life-threatening hazards such as coastal storm surges, changes in streamflow levels, drought, wildfires, and more. Far from looking to the sky alone, they now monitor changes in the atmosphere, oceans, and land surface, recognizing these are all part of an integrated Earth system.
An unfortunate trend, however, has arisen with the improved forecasts: Even as residents rely more than ever on early warnings, the toll of weather- and climate-related disasters is mounting. In Colorado, wildfires, hailstorms, and other disasters cost an estimated $10-$20 billion from 2017 to 2021, which is the most recent five-year period for which NOAA has records. Even after accounting for inflation, that is 10 times the cost of disasters in Colorado for the entire decade of the 1980s.
One reason for the increasing losses can be traced to the population boom in our state, especially as development expands into the urban-wildland interface. Another reason is that Coloradans are living on the front lines of climate change, increasingly vulnerable to wildfires that can erupt at any time of year, prolonged droughts, and more destructive flash floods.
How, then, can meteorologists better protect vulnerable residents?
One answer lies with continued improvement in forecasts. Scientists have scored remarkable successes in predicting complex hazards. NOAA’s new National Water Model, for example, based on technology developed at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, would have produced far more realistic forecasts of the 2013 floods along the Front Range than the technology in use at that time. Researchers are also making notable progress in predicting seasonal patterns, such as mountain snowpack and wildfire conditions, by drawing on such atmospheric-ocean patterns as El Niño and La Niña, as well as more localized data about soil moisture.
Even the perfect forecast, however, has limited value unless residents respond to it. A central challenge for the meteorological community is to present foreseeable impacts in a way that is most convincing and useful to those at risk, as well as motivating residents who are hesitant to respond to forecasts (much as some people demonstrated “vaccine hesitancy” in the face of COVID-19). Instead of communicating the number of acres that a wildfire is burning, for example, social scientists emphasize the importance of clear and concise messaging that can answer such questions as: Is the wildfire approaching my neighborhood? How much time do I have to evacuate? What direction should I drive?
Scientists working to make society more resilient to weather and climate disasters may get an important boost this year. Congress is expected to consider reauthorizing the 2017 Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act, a bipartisan law that is vital for supporting research into improving forecasts and better communicating those forecasts. Updates to this law can provide new guidance to the research community, as well as laying the groundwork for increases in research funding.
The challenges around forecasting are neither confined to Colorado or to the United States. The United Nations World Meteorological Organization has recently launched an Early Warnings for All initiative, which seeks to make climate, water, and weather multi-hazards warnings available to everyone on the planet in the next five years.
Here in the United States, as elsewhere, achieving the twin goals of improved forecasts and improved communications will not be easy. Success will depend on continued government investment into research and technology, as well as innovative leadership by elected officials and science administrators to better integrate the findings of social science into forecast messaging.
These challenges will be a central focus as scientific leaders and meteorological experts arrive in Denver for the annual AMS meeting. As we face increased risk from wildfires, floods, and other disasters, the stakes could hardly be higher for Colorado and for society as a whole.
Michael H. Glantz, of Boulder, is a senior research associate and director of the Consortium for Capacity Building at the University of Colorado Boulder. He specializes in how climate and society influence each other, especially how climate anomalies and human activities interact to affect quality of life issues.
Antonio J. Busalacchi, of Longmont, is an oceanographer and climate expert and president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a Boulder-based nonprofit consortium of 122 North American colleges and universities. It manages the National Center for Atmospheric Research on behalf of the National Science Foundation.
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