Texas Tech’s Brian Ancell is among researchers examining impacts of changing climate on the predictability of forecasting high-profile weather events.
As global warming continues, researchers are studying the impacts it may have on the predictability of high-profile weather events such as tornadoes and severe thunderstorms.
Will steadily escalating temperatures make forecasting more reliable or less reliable? That's one of the questions Texas Tech University's Brian Ancell, an associate professor of atmospheric science in the Department of Geosciences, is studying.
“This study is a little bit different in its scope,” he said. “Previously, the focus has been more on climate change and whether tornadoes and hurricanes will be more numerous or stronger. For us, whatever that change may be, we want to know if we can predict them better.”
When the atmosphere changes, predictability can change, Ancell said, which means the thunderstorm forecast that was spot-on last month could be different six months later because of climatological impacts.
Improved forecasts place actionable information in the hands of people who need it most – from those who might be in the path of a tornado to air traffic controllers to agricultural producers to water reservoir managers overseeing facilities.
Texas Tech is the lead institution on a three-year $1 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant along with Colorado State, State University of New York Oswego and the University of Oklahoma. Texas Tech's share of the grant is $380,000. Researchers at each institution will collect data throughout the first half of the grant's cycle and then analyze findings and make recommendations.
“The project is all about understanding whether or not the predictability of high-impact weather events such as severe thunderstorms will change with global warming, and by that, I mean will forecasts become better or worse,” Ancell said.
While weather forecasting has improved and evolved through the years, progress can still be made, particularly around dangerous weather events that develop quickly and cause significant damage to people and property. Ancell and the other researchers will examine model forecasts of storms that occurred toward the end of the 20th century and projected storms that could occur during an end-of-the-21st-century climate.
“We are producing unique data with this research,” he said. “Essentially, we are looking at what the weather might look like in a different climate 100 years from now. We hope other researchers will be able to use this information as well, so we'll be looking at severe storms and how the predictability of severe thunderstorms, hail, tornadoes and flooding happen.
“If other researchers wanted to examine other weather variables like temperatures or wind speeds, they will be able to look at those in the same data set. This will be brand new data that does not exist.”
In addition to weather simulation for the future, researchers will also use different levels of greenhouse gas emissions to see how low, medium or high rates impact accurate weather forecasting. They are using a high-performance supercomputer to simulate and project climate possibilities for this region and employing an application that runs multiple model forecasts for every scenario.
“The forecast might show lots of uncertainty, and in that case you wouldn't want to use that to inform your decisions about releasing reservoir water, for example,” he said. “If the forecast was more certain, though, you would use it to make your decision. In 50 or 100 years from now, will forecasting uncertainty become larger or smaller? With global warming, maybe the atmosphere is quite a bit different, and all of these events are unpredictable, or maybe they're all really predictable. No one really knows, which is what we're looking at.”
The scientific community broadly agrees that the planet's climate is changing with a pronounced series of weather impacts, likely including longer droughts and more frequent, intense weather events.
“Even 10 or 15 years ago, it was becoming fairly evident that heat waves and hot events are increasing while cold events are decreasing,” Ancell said. “There have been increasing wildfires, and shifts as far as where tornadoes and hurricanes occur are probable in our future.”
Future possibilities could mean a change in how often hurricanes strike the Texas coast or other parts of the country being cooler because changing weather patterns prompt increased cloudiness. Generally speaking, as the planet continues to warm, heat events and droughts will increase while weather in some regions will become less stable overall.
All the research efforts are aimed at producing forecasts that generate certainty.
“That's what a good forecast is all about,” Ancell said. “The whole mission of the National Weather Service is to protect life, property and the environment. If forecasts get really bad, that's going to be harder to do.
“We have no control over the dynamics of the atmosphere. How it is working is completely independent of us. There is chaos involved, and that influences how well a forecast works, and chaos may be more or less prevalent in a warming climate. That's one of the things we're trying to get at.”
The findings will have other applications as well.
“Right now, West Texas is huge for wind power,” Ancell said. “Maybe West Texas is even windier in 100 years; maybe it isn't. But the uncertainty surrounding those forecasts would be included in our findings, and that's really important knowledge. It's important because how well we can predict wind power can help the design of our future energy systems in Texas and beyond.”