President’s column – August 2012
Mon, Aug 20 2012
Extremes of weather and climate are always something to excite the interest of our community. They are the events which have the greatest impact on broader society, and the events where the role of accurate weather forecasting is most crucial to protect life and property. As with most years, 2012 is seeing its share of notable extremes, both in Australia and elsewhere – examples in the last couple of weeks (at the time of writing) being the drought and repeated heatwaves in the United States, and heavy loss of life from flash floods in both Russia and Beijing.
Extreme events touch on many parts of the AMOS community. Most obviously, they are a major part of life for operational forecasters. (We don’t currently have a large membership from operational forecasters, and finding ways to make AMOS more attractive to them is a priority of the Executive during this term – although, as pointed out in the recently-released review of the Bureau’s severe weather operations, there are surprisingly few operational forecasters to begin with).
Improved forecasting of extreme events is also a major driver of research, in modelling and in other areas. In recent years, numerical weather prediction models have been increasingly capable of forecasting the likely occurrence (if perhaps not the finer details) of extreme events several days ahead. A striking example occurred in late February this year, when the ECMWF model, over several successive runs three to six days in advance, was predicting four-day rainfalls across a wide area of southern New South Wales and northern Victoria beyond any precedent in the historic record, and that is exactly what happened.
Potential changes in extreme events are also a area of great interest in the climate change field, as is the interpretation of current extremes in the context of climate change – many of us have abundant experience of being asked whether this heatwave/flood/storm was caused by climate change (or, on the other side, whether this cold spell demonstrates that climate change doesn’t exist). Attribution of such recent events is a very active area of research with a number of interesting papers hitting the streets in the last few months.
Public attitudes to climate change also appear to be influenced by extreme events. On the one hand, the proportion of Australians who perceive climate change as a significant problem, and who believe human activity is largely responsible for it, has fallen steadily over the last five years, and it seems more than coincidental that that is the period over which drought has declined in most major cities. (In case you were wondering, the decline started before the carbon price became a fiercely-contested political issue). On the other hand, the proportion of Americans who believe similarly has risen sharply this year, in a year which is running so far ahead of previous records that even a normal finish to 2012 will be enough to give the continental United States its hottest year on record.
Extremes will be a major focus of the 2013 AMOS National Conference, which will be held in Melbourne from 11 to 13 February. The conference site is now open for the submission of abstracts, which are due on 21 September. We are hoping that this will be a very attractive conference to those working in all of the fields covered by AMOS, but in particular those who deal with extremes, whether in research or in operations.
In the longer term, something we would like to achieve is something akin to what is done at the AMS Annual Meeting, where a special session on the previous year’s high-impact weather is one of the most popular features of the conference. There are some barriers to establishing something similar in Australia, not least that often high-impact events are followed by inquiries or commissions which severely constrain the ability of those involved to speak publicly anywhere else (it is only this year, three years after the event, that we are starting to see Black Saturday papers and conference presentations in significant numbers), but it should be possible to overcome those barriers with a bit of thought.