Why predicting the weather and climate is even harder for Australia’s rainy northern neighbours



File 20181116 194500 1wx1jwa.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Clouds roll across Samosir in northern Sumatra.
Shutterstock.com

Andrew King, University of Melbourne and Claire Vincent, University of Melbourne

Australians love to complain about weather forecasts, but compared with some other parts of the world ours are impressively accurate. Our large, mostly flat continent surrounded by oceans makes modelling Australia’s weather and climate relatively straightforward.

The same cannot be said about our neighbours to the north.

For Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and Papua New Guinea – which we collectively refer to as the “Maritime Continent” – things are a lot more complicated. With their mountainous terrain and islands of different shapes and sizes, it’s much harder to model the weather and climate of this region.




Read more:
The tropics are getting wetter: the reason could be clumpy storms


The models we use to make the most of our climate projections have to simulate the climate for many decades to provide us with useful information. To run such long simulations we have to compromise on resolution; even state-of-the-art global climate models divide the world into grid boxes more than 100km across. The Maritime Continent doesn’t come out too well at these resolutions.

If you squint you can see it! The world’s surface looks a bit like a 1980s video game to a global climate model. The Maritime Continent region (in the black box) is especially messy.
Author provided

It’s unfortunate the Maritime Continent’s weather and climate are so tricky to simulate on long time scales. Due to its location right on the Equator and between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, this region has a defining influence on the global climate, being a major source of heat and water vapour to the atmosphere. If we don’t simulate the climate over the Maritime Continent well, we can get errors appearing on the global scale.

Besides that, the Maritime Continent is also home to hundreds of millions of people, and includes major cities such as Jakarta and Singapore. We need our weather and climate models to simulate the processes behind the severe storms, heatwaves, and droughts that these cities and the broader region experience. Accurate weather forecasts, seasonal outlooks and climate projections require models to simulate the atmosphere over the Maritime Continent well.

In our new study, published in Geophysical Research Letters, we show that many state-of-the-art global climate models struggle to simulate the climate of the Maritime Continent. But fortunately, a higher-resolution model captures more of the major processes in this area.

The benefits of high resolution

Like in Australia, much of the Maritime Continent region is wetter during La Niña seasons and drier in El Niño, although for some western coasts and Sumatra it’s the other way round. Many global climate models fail to reflect accurately this rainfall response to El Niño and La Niña.

We found that for climate models to do a good job in capturing the year-to-year variability in rainfall over the Maritime Continent, they need to do a few things well. Specifically, they need to represent accurately the amount of moisture held in the atmosphere, as well as the pattern of winds in the region. This gives the right pattern of rainfall response to El Niño and La Niña.

Our higher-resolution regional climate model does a much better job at simulating the Maritime Continent’s rainfall patterns than many of the global models we looked at. As the region has such a complex landscape, global models simply cannot capture enough detail on all the different processes between the land and the ocean, and the coasts and the mountains. But higher-resolution regional models can.

We can capture the processes behind rainfall in the Maritime Continent more realistically when we use a high-resolution model. In particular we can better represent the thunderstorms and heavy rain that tends to occur in the afternoons and evenings in the tropics.



Read more:
Australia moves to El Niño alert and the drought is likely to continue


As the Maritime Continent is so important for the global climate but so difficult to model, there is a concerted effort to improve our models and to get more atmospheric observations across the region.

International projects such as the Years of the Maritime Continent are taking place, with millions of dollars and dozens of researchers working on improving our understanding of the region’s weather and climate.

Ultimately, we hope that through better, higher-resolution model simulations, we can capture the processes behind the Maritime Continent’s weather and climate much more accurately. This should lead to better climate projections and seasonal forecasts not only for the region, but for the world as a whole.The Conversation

Andrew King, ARC DECRA fellow, University of Melbourne and Claire Vincent, Lecturer in Atmospheric Science, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Predicting disaster: better hurricane forecasts buy vital time for residents


Jeffrey David Kepert, Australian Bureau of Meteorology and Andrew Dowdy, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

Hurricane Irma (now downgraded to a tropical storm) caused widespread devastation as it passed along the northern edge of the Caribbean island chain and then moved northwards through Florida. The storm’s long near-coastal track exposed a large number of people to its force.

At its peak, Hurricane Irma was one of the most intense ever observed in the North Atlantic. It stayed close to that peak for an unusually long period, maintaining almost 300km per hour winds for 37 hours.

Both of these factors were predicted a few days in advance by the forecasters of the US National Hurricane Center. These forecasts relied heavily on modern technology – a combination of computer models with satellite, aircraft and radar data.


Read more: Irma and Harvey: very different storms, but both affected by climate change


Forecasting is getting better

Although Irma was a very large and intense storm, and many communities were exposed to its force, our capacity to manage and deal with these extreme weather events has saved many lives.

There are many reasons for this, including significant construction improvements. But another important factor is much more accurate forecasts, with a longer lead time. When Tropical Cyclone Tracy devastated Darwin in 1974, the Bureau of Meteorology could only provide 12-hour forecasts of the storm’s track, giving residents little time to prepare.

These days, weather services provide three to five days’ advance warning of landfall, greatly improving our ability to prepare. What’s more, today’s longer-range forecasts are more accurate than the short-range forecasts of a few decades ago.

We have also become better at communicating the threat and the necessary actions, ensuring that an appropriate response is made.

The improvement in forecasting tropical cyclones (known as hurricanes in the North Atlantic region, and typhoons in the northwest Pacific) hasn’t just happened by good fortune. It represents the outcome of sustained investment over many years by many nations in weather satellites, faster computers, and the science needed to get the best out of these tools.

Tropical cyclone movement and intensity is affected by the surrounding weather systems, as well as by the ocean surface temperature. For instance, when winds vary significantly with height (called wind shear), the top of the storm attempts to move in a different direction from the bottom, and the storm can begin to tilt. This tilt makes the storm less symmetrical and usually weakens it. Irma experienced such conditions as it moved northwards from Cuba and onto Florida. But earlier, as it passed through the Caribbean, a low-shear environment and warm sea surface contributed to the high, sustained intensity.

In Irma’s case, forecasters used satellite, radar and aircraft reconnaissance data to monitor its position, intensity and size. The future track and intensity forecast relies heavily on computer model predictions from weather services around the world. But the forecasters don’t just use this computer data blindly – it is checked against, and synthesised with, the other data sources.

In Australia, government and industry investment in supercomputing and research is enabling the development of new tropical cyclone forecast systems that are more accurate. They provide earlier warning of tropical cyclone track and intensity, and even advance warning of their formation.

Still hard to predict destruction

Better forecasting helps us prepare for the different hazards presented by tropical cyclones.

The deadliest aspects of tropical cyclones are storm surges (when the sea rises and flows inland under the force of the wind and waves) and flooding from extreme rainfall, both of which pose a risk of drowning. Worldwide, all of the deadliest tropical cyclones on record featured several metres’ depth of storm surge, widespread freshwater flooding, or both.

Wind can severely damage buildings, but experience shows that even if the roof is torn off, well-constructed buildings still provide enough shelter for their occupants to have an excellent chance of surviving without major injury.

By and large, it is the water that kills. A good rule of thumb is to shelter from the wind, but flee from the water.

https://embed.windy.com/embed2.html?lat=-28.845&lon=135.439&zoom=4&level=surface&overlay=wind&menu=&message=&marker=&forecast=12&calendar=now&location=coordinates&type=map&actualGrid=&metricWind=kt&metricTemp=%C2%B0C

Windy.com combines weather data from the Global Forecast System, North American Mesoscale and the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts to create a live global weather map.

This means that predicting the damage and loss caused by a tropical cyclone is hard, because it depends on both the severity of the storm and the vulnerability of the area it hits.

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 provides a good illustration. Katrina was a Category 3 storm when it made landfall over New Orleans, about as intense at landfall as Australian tropical cyclones Vance, Larry and Yasi. Yet Katrina caused at least 1,200 deaths and more than $US100 billion in damage, making it the third deadliest and by far the most expensive storm in US history. One reason was Katrina’s relatively large area, which produced a very large storm surge. But the other factor was the extraordinary vulnerability of New Orleans, with much of the city below normal sea level and protected by levées that were buried or destroyed by the storm surge, leading to extensive deep flooding.

We have already seen with Hurricane Irma that higher sea levels have exacerbated the sea surge. Whatever happens in the remainder of Irma’s path, it will already be remembered as a spectacularly intense storm, and for its very significant impacts in the Caribbean and Florida. One can only imagine how much worse those impacts would have been had the populations not been forewarned.

The ConversationBut increased population and infrastructure in coastal areas and the effects of climate change means we in the weather forecast business must continue to improve. Forewarned is forearmed.

Jeffrey David Kepert, Head of High Impact Weather Research, Australian Bureau of Meteorology and Andrew Dowdy, Senior Research Scientist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.