Sunny days ahead for seasonal-to-decadal climate forecasting

Wednesday, 19 August, 2015
If your livelihood depends on the weather, you will need to plan ahead for the effects of global warming. But knowing that the climate will be different by 2100 doesn’t tell you much about conditions in the next few months or years. Luckily, climate predictions for the near future are becoming increasingly accurate and reliable, with help from EU-funded research.

The SPECS project is improving the tools and techniques used to predict the climate in coming seasons and years, with a horizon of up to a decade. It is also engaging with business communities to find better ways of sharing such forecasts.

“When we talk about climate change, most of the time we are talking about what’s going to happen at the end of the century” says project manager Francisco J. Doblas-Reyes of the Catalan Institute of Climate Sciences in Spain. “In SPECS, we focus on what happens until we get to that point.”

A heads-up on the climate in the near future could benefit activities as varied as wind farming, winemaking and tourism. SPECS is engaging with business communities that stand to gain and building interfaces that will empower them with crucial information. It involves partners from eight European countries as well as Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research.

Precision prediction

Seasonal-to-decadal climate prediction fills the gap between the weather forecast, which presents the outlook for a number of days, and long-term climate projections such as those informing the debate around anthropogenic global warming.

That said, Doblas-Reyes notes, they are indeed predictions of climate rather than weather. They explore the likelihood of particular conditions at a specific point in the near future, but they cannot predict the actual weather on a given day beyond the next two weeks.

“The mathematical models we use try to reproduce how climate works have components that represent the ocean, the atmosphere, the land surface with the vegetation, the polar ice caps and so on,” Doblas-Reyes explains.

Much activity in SPECS focuses on improving these mathematical models. “The seasonal-to-decadal forecast systems in Europe are the most advanced in the world,” says Doblas-Reyes. ”But it is much more difficult to predict the climate at seasonal timescales over Europe than over many other areas.”

The difficulty, he adds, lies in the fact the drivers shaping Europe’s climate are particularly complex. Unlike other parts of the world, e.g. Australia or sub-Saharan Africa, Europe is not predominantly affected by a small set of well-identified phenomena.

“So we want to factor in more aspects, such as the variability of Arctic sea ice, Siberian snow and the temperatures in the northern Atlantic,” Doblas-Reyes explains. The project is also exploring the scope to offer higher resolution, i.e. to produce more detailed forecasts.

Better information for better business

Knowing what the near future may hold can help communities and businesses to invest wisely and avoid financial damage. But society tends to be far less aware of climate prediction as a discipline than it is of long-term climate projection, which has moved into the forefront of public debate.

The SPECS team strives to bridge this gap. The partners are engaging with the private sector at events, through publications and by means of articles in business journals. “In the face of climate change, it is not enough for companies to assume the near future will be the same as the past. It’s reasonable, but it’s not as good as the information we produce,” Doblas-Reyes explains.

Reinsurance businesses, for example, are keen to understand the probability of heavier and more frequent extreme weather events, and many renewable energy companies could put updates on likely wind conditions to very good use. SPECS has established a dialogue with various business communities and is developing applications that extract forecast information specifically for them.

So you can pack away your crystal ball. Whether you are dreaming of a white Christmas, of sunshine for your wedding come June or of gentle rains for next year’s crops, SPECS is improving your chances of understanding the odds.

Seasonal-to-decadal climate Prediction for the improvement of European Climate Services
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