Ian Roulstone (top) and John Norbury (bottom) are authors of Invisible in the Storm: The Role of Mathematics in Understanding Weather and experts on the application of mathematics in meteorology and weather prediction. As we head into hurricane season along the Eastern coast of the United States, we are still not fully recovered from Hurricane Sandy, empty lots still dot the stretch between Seaside and Point Pleasant and in countless other beach communities. But it could have been worse without the advance warning of meteorologists, so we had a few questions about the accuracy of weather prediction and how it can be further refined in the future.
Now, on to the questions!
What inspired you to get into this field?
Every day millions of clouds form, grow, and move above us, blown by the restless winds of our ever-changing atmosphere. Sometimes they bring rain and sometimes they bring snow – nearly always in an erratic, non-recurring way. Why should we ever be able to forecast weather three days or a week ahead? How can we possibly forecast climate ten years or more in the future? The secret behind successful forecasting involves a judicious mix of big weather-satellite data, information technology, and meteorology. What inspired us was that mathematics turns out to be crucial to bringing it all together.
Why did you write this book?
Many books describe various types of weather for a general audience. Other books describe the physical science of forecasting for more specialist audiences. But no-one has explained, for a general readership, the ideas behind the successful algorithms of the latest weather and climate apps running on today’s supercomputers. Our book describes the achievements and the challenges of modern weather and climate prediction.
There’s quite a lot about the history and personalities involved in the development of weather forecasting in your book; why did you consider this aspect important?
When reviewing the historical development of weather science over the past three centuries, we found the role of individuals ploughing their own furrow to be at least as important as that of big government organisations. And those pioneers ranged from essentially self-taught, and often very lonely individuals, to charming and successful prodigies. Is there a lesson here for future research organisation?
“We can use mathematics to warn us of the potential for chaotic behaviour, and this enables us to assess the risks of extreme events.”
Weather forecasts are pretty good for the next day or two, but not infallible: can we hope for significant improvements in forecasting over the next few years?
The successful forecasts of weather events such as the landfall of Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey in October 2012, and the St Jude Day storm over southern England in October 2013, both giving nearly a week’s warning of the oncoming disaster, give a taste of what is possible. Bigger computers, more satellites and radar observations, and even cleverer algorithms will separate the predictable weather from the unpredictable gust or individual thunderstorm. Further improvements will rely not only on advanced technology, but also, as we explain in our book, on capturing the natural variability of weather using mathematics.
But isn’t weather chaotic?
Wind, warmth and rain are all part of weather. But the very winds are themselves tumbling weather about. This feedback of cause and effect, where the “effects help cause the causes”, has its origins in both the winds and the rain. Clouds are carried by the wind, and rainfall condensing in clouds releases further heat, which changes the wind. So chaotic feedback can result in unexpected consequences, such as the ice-storm or cloudburst that wasn’t mentioned in the forecast. But we can use mathematics to warn us of the potential for chaotic behaviour, and this enables us to assess the risks of extreme events.
Are weather and climate predictions essentially “big data” problems?
We argue no. Weather agencies will continually upgrade their supercomputers, and have a never-ending thirst for weather data, mostly from satellites observing the land and sea. But if all we do is train computer programs by using data, then our forecasting will remain primitive. Scientific ideas formulated with mathematical insight give the edge to intelligent forecasting apps.
So computer prediction relies in various ways on clever mathematics: it gives a language to describe the problem on a machine; it extracts the predictable essence from the weather data; and it selects the predictable future from the surrounding cloud of random uncertainty. This latter point will come to dominate climate prediction, as we untangle the complex interactions of the atmosphere, oceans, ice-caps and life in its many varied forms.
Can climate models produce reliable scenarios for decision-makers?
The models currently used to predict climate change have proved invaluable in attributing trends in global warming to human activity. The physical principles that govern average global temperatures involve the conservation of energy, and these over-arching principles are represented very accurately by the numerical models. But we have to be sure how to validate the predictions: running a model does not, in itself, equate to understanding.
As we explain, although climate prediction is hugely complicated, mathematics helps us separate the predictable phenomena from the unpredictable. Discriminating between the two is important, and it is frequently overlooked when debating the reliability of climate models. Only when we take such factors into account can we – and that includes elected officials – gauge the risks we face from climate change.
What do you hope people will take away from this book?
From government policy and corporate strategy to personal lifestyle choices, we all need to understand the rational basis of weather and climate prediction. Answers to many urgent and pressing environmental questions are far from clear-cut. Predicting the future of our environment is a hugely challenging problem that will not be solved by number-crunching alone. Chaos and the butterfly effect were the buzzwords of the closing decades of the 20th Century. But incomplete and inaccurate data need not be insurmountable obstacles to scientific progress, and mathematics shows us the way forward.
|Invisible in the Storm
The Role of Mathematics in Understanding Weather
Ian Roulstone & John Norbury