New research from Stockholm University in Sweden has shown that climate change is making it increasingly difficult to predict some aspects of the weather.
Before we go any deeper into this news, I’ll explain the difference between weather and climate, since even President Trump seems to be unable to figure it out. Climate is defined as the weather of a place averaged over a period of time, usually 30 years. Weather, on the other hand, is the day-to-day state of the atmosphere, and its short-term variation in minutes to weeks. So, in short: climate is long-term conditions of weather and other factors such as water temperatures, while weather is short-term atmospheric conditions. Thus, it can be 20 below zero for a week on end while climate change is causing the oceans to warm. How? Warmer oceans affect air and water currents, and lead to more extreme weather.
So, with Climate 101 out of the way, let’s move on.
The Stockholm University study focused on weather forecasts in the northern hemisphere spanning three to 10 days ahead. They concluded that the greatest uncertainty in forecasts will occur in the ability to predict summer rain. A major factor in this uncertainty is the decreasing temperature difference between the North Pole and the equator.
But while rainfall forecasts may become less certain, predictions of other conditions such as air temperature and barometric pressure are likely to become more accurate.
“Reliable weather forecasts are tremendously important for almost all of a society, and summer flooding in the northern hemisphere especially is one of the great challenges as the climate is getting warmer,” study main author Sebastian Scher said. “It is very important that meteorological institutes around the world are given the opportunity to develop their tools and methods as conditions change.”
The research project will continue, with the researchers focusing on the ability to predict heavy summer downfalls within 24 to 48 hours.
One thing to be aware of is that vast parts of the U.S. are in floodplains. According to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, 13 million Americans live within a 100-year flood zone, areas with a 1 percent chance of flooding any given year. However, a 2018 study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters argues that FEMA’s flood maps are outdated and underestimate flood risk. The Environmental Research Letters study estimates that the real number of Americans exposed to flood risk is about 41 million.
Communities in South Dakota, Nebraska, and New Mexico could see a five-fold increase in flood risk by 2100. Florida and Texas’s flood risk is projected to triple of quadruple. And that’s not even counting climate change and its impacts like sea level rise.
For those people, and for people all around the world, both weather and climate matter, and accurate weather forecasts can—and I’m not exaggerating here—be the difference between life and death.