Climate Cast: Less snow overall, but more blizzards? USA’s “Computer Gap”

Every Thursday MPR meteorologist Paul Huttner joins Kerri Miller on The Daily Circuit for “Climate Cast” on MPR News Stations to talk about the latest research on our changing climate and the consequences that we’re seeing here in Minnesota and worldwide.

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These days it seems like we are witnessing climate changes unfold right before our very eyes.

It’s not our imagination.

The nature of our seasons is changing. Spring blooms come earlier. Summer is more humid with a documented increase in extreme localized flash flood events…and more frequent droughts. Fall lingers longer. Lakes freeze up later. Winters are trending shorter and noticeably, measurably milder. New plants are able to thrive in Minnesota’s milder climate.

We’re all living witnesses to rapid climate changes in our lifetime. This is no longer your grandparents “Minnesota.”

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A snowless Deephaven Beach on Lake Minnetonka on January 9th, 2012.

Image: Paul Huttner – MPR News

In 2013 at MPR we’re devoting more coverage to the science behind and the growing effects of our changing climate in Minnesota and around the globe.

You can hear me discuss the week’s top climate stories in our new “Climate Cast” every Thursday morning at 9:50am with Kerri Miller on The Daily Circuit.

Climate Cast for Thursday, February 21st

This week on Climate Cast, MPR News Chief Meteorologist Paul Huttner joins The Daily Circuit to discuss new research indicating there will be less snow in our future, but more blizzards.

We’ll also look at how the federal budget sequester cuts could have an impact on NOAA’s ability to predict extreme weather events.

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Image: Paul Huttner – MPR News

Climate Contradiction: Less snow with more intense blizzards?

It seems impossible at first glance.

Climate Change trends indicate less snowfall overall in winter, but more intense blizzards?

As it turns out a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor. And warmer oceans can unleash incredible amounts of moisture and heat energy into developing storms like the Nor’easter that hammered New England with 30″ to 40″ snow totals this month.

AP Science Writer Seth Bornstein explains how this apparent climate contradiction is exactly what we would expect in a warmer world.

WASHINGTON (AP) — With scant snowfall and barren ski slopes in parts of the Midwest and Northeast the past couple of years, some scientists have pointed to global warming as the culprit.

Then, when a whopper of a blizzard smacked the Northeast with more than 2 feet of snow in some places earlier this month, some of the same people again blamed global warming.

How can that be? It’s been a joke among skeptics, pointing to what seems to be a brazen contradiction.

But the answer lies in atmospheric physics. A warmer atmosphere can hold, and dump, more moisture, snow experts say. And two soon-to-be-published studies demonstrate how there can be more giant blizzards yet less snow overall each year. Projections are that that’s likely to continue with manmade global warming.


— The United States has been walloped by twice as many of the most extreme snowstorms in the past 50 years than in the previous 60 years, according to an upcoming study on extreme weather by leading federal and university climate scientists. This also fits with a dramatic upward trend in extreme winter precipitation — both rain and snow — in the Northeastern U.S. charted by the National Climatic Data Center.

— Yet the Global Snow Lab at Rutgers University says spring snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere has shrunk on average by 1 million square miles in the past 45 years.

— And an upcoming study in the Journal of Climate says computer models predict annual global snowfall to shrink by more than a foot in the next 50 years. The study’s author said most people live in parts of the United States that are likely to see annual snowfall drop between 30 percent and 70 percent by the end of the century.

“Shorter snow season, less snow overall, but the occasional knockout punch,” Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer said. “That’s the new world we live in.”

“Sequester” Storm Brewing: Could NOAA budget cuts make us miss future “Superstorms?”

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The VIIRS sensor on the NOAA/NASA Suomi NPP satellite passed over the central eye of Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 25, 2012. Without the satellite data, NOAA’s weather forecasts would become less reliable.

Credit: JPSS/NOAA/NASA via Climate Central

It sounds like a reasonable idea on the surface.

Trim the fat. Cut (allegedly) bloated budgets.

But in an era when NOAA is already falling behind Europe in the computing power and accuracy of weather forecast models (Numerical Weather Prediction) will automatic budget cuts put us at risk for missing future superstorms like Sandy?

Any delay in model upgrades or satellite launches may cost dearly in future forecast accuracy according to NOAA Chief Jane Lubchenco.

Climate Central’s Lauren Morello expands.

The sequestration cuts, which will take effect unless Congress can overcome political gridlock and approve a new spending deal, would chop 8.2 percent from the operating budgets of most federal agencies, including NOAA, the White House Office of Management and Budget estimates.

“The way it is structured, [sequestration] applies to every single line item” in NOAA’s budget, said Lubchenco, who will leave her post at NOAA next month. “We don’t have a lot of discretion to say this is more important than that. Everything gets whacked.”

And that could further delay the launch of the nation’s next polar-orbiting environmental satellite, adding to the likelihood of a gap between probes collecting data that powers the nation’s weather forecasts.

NOAA has warned for several years of a near-certain gap in data collected by the nation’s current polar-orbiting satellite, Suomi NPP, and its replacement, JPSS-1.

That’s because Suomi, which launched in late 2011, was designed to operate for at least five years. But JPSS-1, won’t reach orbit until early 2017 — or later.

And that is setting up a potential gap in key weather data that could last anywhere from 17 to 53 months, the Government Accountability Office warned this week in its annual analysis of federal programs at “high risk” for waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement, or those “needing broad-based transformation.”

It sounds wonky. But without that polar-orbiting satellite data, NOAA’s weather forecasts would become less reliable. The agency has calculated that it would have underestimated the amount of snow that fell during the “Snowmageddon” blizzard that hit the East Coast in 2010 by 10 inches. And its forecasts would have placed the center of the storm 200 to 300 miles away from its actual epicenter.

USA Weather Forecast Computer Gap: We’re #7!

We’re told the USA has the best of everything.

But when it comes to weather forecasting, there are strong signs NOAA’s Numerical Weather Prediction capability and computing power are falling seriously behind many other nations.

As a weather forecaster who has worked with NOAA’s suite of weather forecast models for nearly 30 years, I can tell you there are some serious issues with the reliability of many of our U.S. forecast models.

There are many instances where the “European Model” (ECMWF clearly outperforms NOAA’s medium range GFS models, such as with Hurricane Sandy last fall.

Now “King Euro” has nailed another major superstorm long before the GFS, and people are starting to ask why?

University of Washington Professor Cliff Mass has some great insight into the issue. He’s a leading advocate for positive change, and I had the good fortune to catch up with him at the 93rd Annual AMS Conference in Austin Texas last month to hear his talk and ask him about NOAA’s “computer gap.”

One option? Transfer some of the massive computing power NOAA uses for Climate Modeling to Numerical Weather Prediction.

Here’s an edited excerpt from the Cliff’s latest post as he explains why he feels NOAA need to make major upgrades to our computing power and numerical weather prediction capabilities.

It happened again.

A major storm hit the northeast U.S. and the U.S. global model lagged badly behind the predictions of the European Center for Medium Range Weather Forecasting (ECMWF) .

Just as with Sandy.

First, the observed situation. A deep low center right off the coast. A major snow and wind threat.

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Image: Cliff Mass

And there is the 120 hr ECMWF forecast, clearly showing a major storm.

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Image: ECMWF via Cliff Mass

The U.S. GFS model for the same time? Only predicted a minor trough with little weather. Not good. The U.S. model was just as bad at 108 hr out. Disappointing.

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Image: NOAA GFS via Cliff Mass

The National Weather Service’s own statistics show that the American model had a substantial drop in skill globally during the critical period in question, with inferior performance (black line) compared to the European Center, the UKMET office, the Canadian Meteorological Center, and even the U.S. Navy (see figure, closer to one is better).

As I have described in my previous blogs (including here and here), much of the inferiority of U.S. global numerical weather prediction can be traced to the third-rate operational computer resources available to the National Weather Service (NWS)’s Environmental Modeling Center (EMC), an inferiority that can only be characterized as a national embarrassment. And as I shall document here, the NWS weather prediction computers are not only inferior to those of other national weather services, but also to NOAA’s computers for weather research and to U.S. climate prediction machines. Be prepared to be shocked, angry, and disappointed. And to take action to change this situation.

Let’s begin by comparing the most powerful weather prediction computers used by various countries around the world (see graphic below). Japan and ECMWF are the leaders with about .8 petaflop machines, followed by England (UKMET), S. Korea, and Canada. The U.S. is at the bottom of the barrel, with about TEN PERCENT of the capacity of the leaders.

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Yes, we are talking about the richest nation in the world, and one of the most vulnerable to severe weather.

I must say, Cliff makes a strong case that things need to change quickly at NOAA when it comes to NWP.

Looking at the weather maps on a daily basis, I totally agree.


Climate Cast resources:

Want to know more about climate change? Here are few quick links to credible climate change sources.

-Read the Minnesota Public Radio primer on Climate Change

-NOAA NCDC’s “State of the Climate” report

-AMS Statement on Climate Change

-NASA key evidence of climate change

-Great summary of Modern Day Climate Change from SUNY-Suffolk

-Minnesota Climate Working Group climate change resources

-Mark Seeley’s Weather Talk

-Common climate change myths

-Climate change in the news from Climate Central

-More coverage from The Yale Forum on Climate Change and Media

  • Rebecca A.

    the blog is no longer going to my cell phone app. can anyone tell me how to get it started again? it stopped coming in about three blog posts ago. thanks, rebecca