Soil moisture, snowpack data could help predict 'flash droughts'

BOULDER, Colo. — New research suggests that "flash droughts" — like the one that unexpectedly gripped the Southern Rockies and Midwest in the summer of 2012 — could be predicted months in advance using soil moisture and snowpack data. Researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) analyzed the conditions leading up to the 2012 drought, which ultimately caused $30 billion in economic losses, looking for any warning signs that a drought was on the way. In a study funded by the National Science Foundation and published in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres, the scientists find that observations of snowmelt and soil moisture could have predicted the ensuing drought up to four months in advance."The 2012 drought over the Midwest was one of the most severe and extensive U.S. droughts since the 1930s Dust Bowl, but it was also extremely challenging to predict," said Debasish PaiMazumder, lead author of the study. "This study demonstrated the potential to improve seasonal drought outlooks in the future, giving farmers, water planners, and others more time to prepare."The official U.S. Drought Monitor issued on Aug. 21, 2012. The map shows the exceptionally severe drought across the middle of the country. Just three months before, drought forecasts failed to predict that a drought was on the way. Click to enlarge. (Image courtesy National Drought Mitigation Center.)Seasonal drought forecasts issued in May 2012 for the upcoming summer did not foresee a drought forming in the country's midsection. But by the end of August, a drought that had started in the Southern Rockies had spread across the Midwest, parching Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri.These flash droughts — which form and intensify rapidly — can catch forecasters off guard because they are not preceded by any large-scale climate patterns that could act as a warning signal. For example, one contributor to the recent California drought was a persistent high-pressure system parked off the west coast of Canada that deflected storms away from the state. Because forecasters could identify the high-pressure system, they could also accurately predict fewer storms and a worsening of the drought.Previous research has shown that looking at soil moisture alone could improve the lead-time of drought predictions by one to two months. PaiMazumder and NCAR colleague James Done were interested in whether they could extend this further by adding snowpack into the equation.“Advance knowledge of a drought even a month or two ahead of time can greatly minimize the effects on society,” said Anjuli Bamzai, program director in NSF’s Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences, which funded the research.  “This study highlights the role of snowpack and soil moisture conditions in predicting the sudden onset of drought.”To explore the physical connections among snowpack, soil moisture, and drought, the researchers analyzed data collected between 1980-2012. To supplement those observations, they also explored the physical connections in a new NCAR-based community Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model dataset comprising 24 simulations of the period 1990-2000 and 2012. Because each simulation was run with small tweaks to the way the model represents atmospheric physics, the result was a broad look at different climate scenarios that could have plausibly unfolded during the study period."The model helped us get a handle on how robust the relationships between snowpack, soil moisture, and drought are," Done said. "The stronger the relationship, the better a predictor is."While observations of snowpack and soil moisture could have helped predict the 2012 drought, the method does not replace other drought prediction measures that identify large-scale phenomena that frequently lead to drought conditions."This is another ingredient that could be used when making seasonal drought forecasts," Done said. "But it's not the only ingredient, and for many droughts that are tied to large-scale precursors, it may not be the most important one." About the articleTitle: Potential Predictability Sources of the 2012 US Drought in Observations and a Regional Model EnsembleAuthors: Debasish PaiMazumder and James DoneJournal: Journal of Geophysical Research – Atmospheres, DOI: 10.1002/2016JD025322Writer:Laura Snider, Senior Science Writer and Public Information Officer   

NCAR, UCAR scientists win AMS honors

BOULDER, Colo. — Eight scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) have won special honors from the American Meteorological Society (AMS), garnering several of the most prestigious awards in the atmospheric sciences."The large number of award winners demonstrates the extent to which NCAR and UCAR are important leaders in our field," said NCAR Director James Hurrell. "Working with collaborators throughout the research community, these scientists are gaining new understanding of critical atmospheric processes in ways that will advance prediction and better protect society."The AMS, which has more than 13,000 members, is the nation's premier scientific and professional organization for the atmospheric and related sciences. It is presenting the awards to 74 individuals and five organizations. The winners will be recognized at a ceremony in January at the AMS annual meeting in Seattle.NCAR and UCAR honoreesPeggy LeMoneMargaret "Peggy" LeMone (Honorary Member of the AMS). LeMone, an NCAR senior scientist emerita and former AMS president, is being recognized by the society as a person of "acknowledged preeminence" in atmospheric science. An expert on storm structure and the interaction of the boundary layer with clouds and the surface, she served as chief scientist of the worldwide GLOBE science and education program and is the author or co-author of nearly 200 peer-reviewed papers.Richard RotunnoRichard Rotunno (Carl-Gustaf Rossby Research Medal). Rotunno, an NCAR senior scientist, is a leading expert in tornadoes and other severe storms, usingtheory and computer modeling to develop the understanding needed to improve forecasts. He won the Rossby medal — the top AMS honor — for "elegant, rigorous work that has fundamentally increased our understanding of mesoscale and synoptic-scale dynamics, especially the role of vorticity in the atmosphere." Sergey SokolovskiySergey V. Sokolovskiy (Verner E. Suomi Award). Sokolovskiy is a scientist with the UCAR COSMIC program, which uses a satellite-based GPS technology known as radio occultation to measure atmospheric parameters for weather, climate, and space weather applications. He won "for exceptional theoretical and practical contributions to the science and application of radio occultation observations of Earth’s atmosphere." Jennifer KayJennifer Kay (Henry Houghton Award). Kay, a visiting NCAR scientist and University of Colorado Boulder professor, uses observations and computer models to better understand climate variability and change. She won the award "for the innovative use of observations and global climate models to better understand the rapidly evolving climate of the polar regions." Scott EllisScott Ellis (Editor's Award). NCAR scientist Scott Ellis is a radar specialist who focuses on field campaigns and data analysis. An associate editor of the "Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology," Ellis won "for consistently excellent reviews." Mary BarthMary Barth (AMS Fellow). AMS Fellows are recognized for "outstanding contributions" to the atmospheric or related sciences over several years. Barth, an NCAR senior scientist, focuses on interactions between clouds and atmospheric chemistry. Her research, which draws on atmospheric measurements and computer models, sheds light on the effect of storms on gases and particles in the atmosphere that can affect weather and climate. Robert SharmanRobert Sharman (AMS Fellow). Sharman is a veteran NCAR scientist who specializes in atmospheric turbulence and its effect on aircraft. His work, with the Federal Aviation Administration and the airline industry, seeks to better predict turbulence and safely guide aircraft away from it. Christine Wiedinmyer In addition, the AMS granted a special award to the Earth Science Women's Network. Co-founded by NCAR scientist Christine Wiedinmyer, the network is dedicated to career development, peer mentoring, and community building for women in the geosciences. The network, which has grown since its founding in 2002 to more than 2,900 members, won "for inspirational commitment to broadening the participation of women in the Earth sciences, providing a supportive environment for peer mentoring and professional development." "I commend the honorees for their leadership across a remarkable breadth of research," said UCAR President Antonio J Busalacchi. "Our organization is truly a nexus for the expertise and creativity needed to better understand and predict the Earth system and its impacts on society."American Meteorological Society (AMS)Founded in 1919, the AMS is the nation’s premier scientific and professional organization promoting and disseminating information about the atmospheric, oceanic, hydrologic sciences. Its more than 13,000 members include scientists, researchers, educators, broadcast meteorologists, students, weather enthusiasts, and other professionals in the fields of weather, water, and climate.

UCAR president to be inducted into National Academy of Engineering

BOULDER, Colo. — Antonio "Tony" J. Busalacchi, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), will be inducted next week into the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) during a ceremony in Washington, D.C.Election to the NAE honors those who have made outstanding contributions to engineering research, practice, or education. It is among the highest professional distinctions accorded to an engineer and those working at the intersection of science and engineering.Busalacchi was elected for his contributions to "understanding of tropical oceans in coupled climate systems via remotely sensed observations and for international leadership of climate prediction/projection research."UCAR President Antonio J. Busalacchi has been elected to the National Academy of Engineering. Click here for a higher-resolution image. (©UCAR. Photo by Carlye Calvin. This image is freely available for media & nonprofit use.)"I am deeply honored to be elected to this distinguished group," Busalacchi said. "As a nation we face a number of challenges in sustaining our ability to observe and predict weather, water, and climate. Despite such challenges, I am very optimistic about what the future holds at UCAR for our ability to predict the coupled Earth system to the ultimate betterment of society."UCAR is a consortium of more than 100 North American member colleges and universities focused on research and training in the atmospheric and related Earth system sciences.Busalacchi joined UCAR as president in August. He was previously the director of the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center at the University of Maryland. Busalacchi is also a fellow of the American Meteorological Society (2005), the American Geophysical Union (2009), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2011)."The leadership and vision that Tony has brought to the Earth system science community — recognized by his numerous awards, including this induction into the distinguished National Academy of Engineering — are a tremendous asset to UCAR," said Eric Betterton, Chair of the UCAR Board of Trustees and a distinguished professor at the University of Arizona. "We are thrilled that Tony agreed to join UCAR and help set our direction as an interdisciplinary hub for researchers tackling some of the toughest scientific problems of our time."Busalacchi is one of 80 U.S. members and 22 foreign members who will be inducted into the NAE during its annual meeting on Oct. 9. He joins other past inductees from UCAR or the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), which is managed by UCAR on behalf of the National Science Foundation. Those academy members include C. Gordon Little (1974), Robert Serafin (1994), Margaret LeMone (1997), Robert Dickinson (2002), Warren Washington (2002), and Timothy Killeen (2007).The mission of NAE is to advance the well-being of the nation by promoting a vibrant engineering profession and by marshaling the expertise and insights of eminent engineers to provide independent advice to the federal government on matters involving engineering and technology. The NAE is part of The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Food security report wins USDA award

BOULDER, Colo. — A comprehensive report warning of the impacts of climate change on the world's food security has won a top U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) award."Climate Change, Global Food Security, and the U.S. Food System," with co-authors from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), provides an overview of recent research in climate change and agriculture. It warns that warmer temperatures and altered precipitation patterns can threaten food production, disrupt transportation systems, and degrade food safety, among other impacts, and that the world's poor and those living in tropical regions are particularly vulnerable.Michael Scuse, USDA acting deputy secretary (center), with members of the team of experts who produced the award-winning report, "Climate Change, Global Food Security, and the U.S. Food System." Those pictured are (back row from left): William Easterling (The Pennsylvania State University), Edward Carr (Clark University), and Peter Backlund (Colorado State University); front row from left: Rachel Melnick (USDA), Margaret Walsh (USDA), Scuse, Moffat Ngugi (U.S. Agency for International Development/USDA), and Karen Griggs (NCAR). (Photo by USDA.) The USDA this month named it as the winner of the 2016 Abraham Lincoln Honor Award for Increasing Global Food Security. The Abraham Lincoln Honor Award is the most prestigious USDA award presented by the Secretary of Agriculture, recognizing noteworthy accomplishments that significantly contribute to the advancement of the USDA's strategic goals, mission objectives, and overall management excellence.The report was produced as part of a collaboration between NCAR, the USDA, and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), which manages NCAR on behalf of the National Science Foundation. It was written by 32 experts from 19 federal, academic, nongovernmental, intergovernmental, and private organizations in the United States, Argentina, Britain, and Thailand. The authors included three NCAR scientists, as well as eight experts affiliated with UCAR member universities."This award highlights the importance of addressing climate change in order to maintain the progress the world has made on food security in recent decades," said NCAR program director Lawrence Buja, who helped oversee production of the report. "Scientists will continue to study this critical issue and work with decision makers to co-develop the information they need about potential climate impacts on future production, distribution, and other aspects of our U.S. and global food systems."Published under the auspices of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the reportfocuses on identifying climate change impacts on global food security through 2100. The authors emphasize that food security — the ability of people to obtain and use sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food — will be affected by several factors in addition to climate change, such as technological advances, increases in population, the distribution of wealth, and changes in eating habits."Climate change has a myriad of potential impacts, especially on food, water, and energy systems," said UCAR President Antonio J. Busalacchi. "I commend the authors of this report for clearly analyzing this very complex issue in the agriculture sector, which has implications for all of society, from the least developed nations to the most advanced economies."Report authorsMolly Brown, University of Maryland*John Antle, Oregon State University*Peter Backlund, Colorado State University *Edward Carr, Clark UniversityBill Easterling, Pennsylvania State University*Margaret Walsh, USDA Office of the Chief Economist/Climate Change Program OfficeCaspar Ammann, NCARWitsanu Attavanich, Kasetsart UniversityChris Barrett, Cornell University*Marc Bellemare, University of Minnesota*Violet Dancheck, U.S. Agency for International DevelopmentChris Funk, U.S. Geological SurveyKathryn Grace, University of Utah*John Ingram, University of OxfordHui Jiang, USDA Foreign Agricultural ServiceHector Maletta, Universidad de Buenos AiresTawny Mata, USDA/American Association for the Advancement of ScienceAnthony Murray, USDA-Economic Research ServiceMoffatt Ngugi, U.S. Agency for International Development/USDA Foreign Agricultural ServiceDennis Ojima, Colorado State University*Brian O'Neill, NCARClaudia Tebaldi, NCAR*UCAR member universityReport project teamLawrence Buja, NCARKaren Griggs, NCAR 

UCAR congressional briefing highlights flood, drought prediction

WASHINGTON — The nation is poised to make major advances in "water intelligence" with more detailed forecasts of floods, streamflow, and potential drought conditions, a panel of experts said at a congressional briefing today.The briefing, sponsored by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), highlighted the new National Water Model, a comprehensive system for forecasting water resources from coast to coast. The technology underpinning the model, launched last month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and its collaborators at universities, the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies, and the private sector."The new forecast model is really a quantum leap forward and will help safeguard Americans from major floods and other precipitation events," said UCAR President Antonio J. Busalacchi, who introduced the panel. "It bridges the gap between research and operations, generating real-time forecasts to help vulnerable communities and protect lives and property."UCAR manages NCAR on behalf of the National Science Foundation."Through a series of partnerships, it's possible to provide consistent, high-resolution, integrated water analyses, predictions, and data to address critical unmet information and service gaps," said Edward Clark, director of the Geo-Intelligence Office of Water Prediction at the NOAA National Water Center.Scientists generated this inundation forecast during Houston-area flooding earlier this year in a demonstration of  advanced computer modeling technology. (©UCAR. Image by David Gochis, NCAR. This image is freely available for media & nonprofit use.)Unlike past streamflow models, which provided forecasts every few hours and only for specific points along major river systems, the new system continuously simulates conditions at 2.7 million locations along rivers, streams, and their tributaries across the contiguous United States. It paves the way for the biggest improvement in flood forecasting in the nation's history."The National Water Model provides a different way of thinking about continental hydrology by providing a view of a connected plumbing network from the mountains to the ocean," said panelist Richard Hooper, executive director of the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science (CUAHSI). "Previously, hydrologists had considered river basins as discrete units rather than this river-continuum approach. This change in view opens up new areas of research that will improve our ability to predict not just floods but other aspects of water resources, including water quality and the impacts of droughts."Thanks to ongoing research, the National Water Model is expected to provide increasingly detailed street-level forecasts, inundation maps, and additional features such as water quality forecasts. Scientists are working on incorporating more processes, such as soil saturation and the amount of water drawn up by vegetation."By dramatically increasing the geographic coverage as well as the lead times for forecasts, the National Water Model is ushering in a new era in flood and flash flood forecasting," said John McHenry, chief scientist of advanced meteorological systems for Baron Services. "Business, industry, and the general public will benefit through reduction in lost lives and property."The panelists emphasized the importance of water resources to the major sectors of the U.S. economy. They warned that the nation is facing myriad water-related challenges ranging from growing demand to increasingly costly floods and droughts. Meeting those challenges will require continued coordination among research organizations, universities, the private sector, and federal, state, and local agencies."Beyond developing a new computer model, we're building a community by sharing resources, tools, and ideas," said NCAR scientist David Gochis. "The scientists are engaging with practitioners and decision makers to make the system as usable as possible."The development team at NCAR worked with scientists at NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey, and universities to adapt WRF-Hydro to serve as the first version of the National Water Model.The panelists also discussed the need for better water intelligence among diverse communities across the country. For example, Ryan Emanuel, associate professor at North Carolina State University's Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, noted that indigenous tribes across the nation are particularly vulnerable to drought and flooding for a range of cultural, historical, and economic reasons."Indigenous peoples across the United States are diverse, but one common theme is that water is sacred," said Emanuel, a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. "It's not only critical for life, but it is life itself. Beyond the tools, the models, and the management lies the knowledge of the original inhabitants of this nation that water binds us all to a common fate."The event is the latest in a series of UCAR congressional briefings about critical topics in the Earth system sciences. Past briefings have focused on predicting space weather, aviation weather safety, the state of the Arctic, hurricane prediction, and potential impacts of El Niño.

NCAR|UCAR hurricane experts available to explain storm behavior, impacts

BOULDER, Colo. — Scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and its managing organization, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), use advanced computer models and observations to study how tropical storms behave and their impacts on society. Our hurricane experts are available to explain:Why hurricanes and tropical storms form and what causes the behavior of these powerful storms;How we can better predict the possible impacts of hurricanes, including flooding and subsequent spread of disease-bearing mosquitoes;How climate change may be impacting hurricanes and what can we expect in the future; andHow well hurricane forecasts are communicated and how communication can be improved. Hurricane formation, intensity, and trackChristopher Davis, director, NCAR Mesoscale and Microscale Meteorology Laboratory,, 303-497-8990. Davis studies the weather systems that lead to hurricanes and other heavy rainfall events. His expertise includes hurricane prediction and how computer models can be improved to better forecast storms.Jeff Weber, UCAR meteorologist,, 303-497-8676. An expert on hurricanes and severe weather in general, Weber closely monitors the behavior of individual storms and the larger atmospheric and oceanic conditions that influence them. FloodingMatthew Kelsch, UCAR hydrometeorologist,, 303-497-8309. Kelsch has studied some of the biggest U.S. flood events connected to hurricanes and tropical storms, and he trains scientists from around the world on hydrology topics.David Gochis, NCAR scientist,, 303-497-2809. An expert in hydrometeorology, Gochis studies the causes of floods and how to better predict them. Communicating forecastsRebecca Morss, NCAR Scientist,, 303-497-8172. Morss studies how hurricane and flash flood risks and evacuation plans can be better communicated to the public.Julie Demuth, NCAR scientist,, 303-497-8112. Demuth studies how to better communicate forecasts and warnings to the public, and how to create more useful weather hazard products and tools for forecasters. Economic and societal ImpactsJeff Lazo, NCAR scientist,, 303-497-2857. Lazo leads NCAR's societal impacts program. He has researched the value of improving hurricane forecast accuracy and the potential need for a new National Weather Service storm surge warning product. Climate changeKevin Trenberth, NCAR senior scientist,, 303-497-1318. Trenberth has been in the forefront of scientists examining the potential influence of climate change on the intensity of tropical storms and hurricanes.Greg Holland, NCAR senior scientist, Holland, an expert on possible links between global warming and tropical cyclone activity, is helping to lead a program at NCAR to develop tools that will enhance society's resilience to extreme weather.James Done, NCAR scientist,, 303-497-8209. Done recently helped develop a new index to quantify a hurricane's ability to cause destruction. The Cyclone Damage Potential (CDP) index rates storms on a scale of 1 to 10. It can also be used to examine how the potential for cyclones to cause damage may change in the future as the climate warms. DiseaseMary Hayden, NCAR scientist,, 303-497-8116. Hayden investigates the link between climate and disease, and she collaborates with universities and health officials to reduce societal risk and vulnerability to disease.Andrew Monaghan, NCAR scientist,, 303-497-8424. Monaghan uses computer modeling to identify the potential risks of diseases such as the Zika virus and dengue fever due to climate and other factors.

NSF/NCAR research plane assisting with U.S. hurricane forecasts

BOULDER, Colo. — As the peak of hurricane season approaches, U.S. forecasters are deploying a high-altitude research aircraft operated by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) to fly over and around storms to take critical observations.The NSF/NCAR Gulfstream-V readies for takeoff on a mission to study tropical storms. (©UCAR. Photo by Carlye Calvin. This image is freely available for media & nonprofit use.) The deployment this week of the Gulfstream-V (G-V) aircraft is the result of a partnership between the National Science Foundation (NSF), which owns the plane, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which issues forecasts. The NSF/NCAR G-V will take to the skies to support hurricane forecasts through October 12, while NOAA’s Gulfstream-IV (G-IV) undergoes unscheduled maintenance."It's critical to have detailed measurements of the atmosphere around a hurricane in order to ensure that forecasts are as accurate as possible," said Antonio (Tony) J. Busalacchi, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which manages NCAR on behalf of NSF. "NCAR and its research partners have a proven track record of improving predictions of dangerous storms. Consistent with our role of managing NCAR, we take very seriously our ability and responsibility to share our advanced resources in support of NOAA's mission to protect life and property.""NSF is pleased that NCAR, using the G-V, is able to assist in this potentially lifesaving activity," said Roger Wakimoto, assistant director of the NSF Directorate for Geosciences. "The data gathered will help refine future hurricane forecasts.”Outfitted for critical observationsThe NSF/NCAR G-V can fly at high altitudes and deploy the same specialized sensors as the NOAA G-IV. These sensors take critical observations of atmospheric conditions for the NOAA National Hurricane Center.Studies show that such observations improve hurricane track forecasts in the U.S. global weather model (called the GFS) by about 15 percent during the 24 to 48 hours before landfall. Research also demonstrates that these data increase the accuracy of hurricane intensity forecasts.To take the observations, the NSF/NCAR G-V has been outfitted with the Airborne Vertical Atmospheric Profiling System (AVAPS). The system releases parachute-borne sensors, known as GPS dropsondes, that measure ambient temperature, pressure, humidity, wind speed, and wind direction at different altitudes as they fall through the atmosphere. Dropsondes were first developed at NCAR in the 1970s with NSF funding and have since been regularly updated. NOAA was an early adopter of the dropsondes for hurricane surveillance missions and research, and the development of the AVAPS system design in the 1990s was motivated in part by the capabilities of the NOAA G-IV.The NSF/NCAR G-V, which is available for flights over both the Atlantic and Pacific, will fly above a hurricane or other major storm at altitudes of up to 45,000 feet, as well as around the storm's edges. Its dropsonde launch system and software is similar to that of the NOAA G-IV.NCAR pilots will guide the aircraft on pre-planned flight tracks, dropping sondes approximately every 15 minutes. Data from the sondes will be processed by a NOAA technician onboard the plane, then sent to the Global Telecommunications System for immediate inclusion in hurricane forecast models."It is a special privilege for us to be able to help out our colleagues at NOAA by deploying the NSF/NCAR G-V in the hurricane surveillance missions this season," said Vanda Grubišić, director of NCAR's Earth Observing Laboratory, which operates the G-V. "Our Research Aviation Facility crews look forward to working with their NOAA colleagues and collecting important data in support of their mission."

Solar energy gets boost from new forecasting system

BOULDER, Colo. — A cutting edge forecasting system developed by a national team of scientists offers the potential to save the solar energy industry hundreds of millions of dollars through improved forecasts of the atmosphere.The new system, known as Sun4CastTM, has been in development for three years by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in collaboration with government labs, universities, utilities, and commercial firms across the country. Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative, the system greatly improves predictions of clouds and other atmospheric conditions that influence the amount of energy generated by solar arrays.After testing Sun4Cast at multiple sites, the research team has determined that it can be up to 50 percent more accurate than current solar power forecasts. This improved accuracy will enable utilities to deploy solar energy more reliably and inexpensively, reducing the need to purchase energy on the spot market. The amount of energy gathered by solar panels — such as these in Colorado's San Luis Valley — is influenced by factors including the position and types of clouds, the amount of snow on the ground, and relative humidity. The new Sun4Cast system greatly improves solar irradiance predictions, enabling utilities to deploy solar energy more reliably and inexpensively. (©UCAR. Photo by Sue Ellen Haupt, NCAR. This image is freely available for media & nonprofit use.)As a result, utilities across the United States may be able to save an estimated $455 million through 2040 as they use more solar energy, according to an analysis by NCAR economist Jeffrey Lazo.NCAR, which does not provide operational forecasts, makes the technology available so it can be adapted by utilities or private forecasting companies. The research is being highlighted in more than 20 peer-reviewed papers."These results can help enable the nation's expanding use of solar energy," said Sue Ellen Haupt, director of NCAR’s Weather Systems and Assessment Program, who led the research team. "More accurate predictions are vital for making solar energy more reliable and cost effective."The work builds on NCAR’s expertise in highly detailed atmospheric prediction, including the design of an advanced wind energy forecasting system."This type of research and development is important because it contributes to the reduction in costs for solar and wind energy and makes it easier for utilities to integrate renewables into the electrical grid," said William Mahoney, Deputy Director of NCAR's Research Applications Laboratory. "When it comes to balancing demand for power with supply, it's vital to be able to predict sources of energy as accurately as possible."Xcel Energy is already beginning to use the system to forecast conditions at several of its main solar facilities.“Our previous experience with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in developing a wind forecasting system has saved millions of dollars and has been highly beneficial for our customers," said Drake Bartlett, senior trading analyst for Xcel Energy – Colorado. "It is our sincere hope and belief that we will see positive atmospheric forecasting results for predicting solar generation as well, again to the benefit of our Xcel Energy customers."Energy forecasts out to 72 hoursUsing a combination of advanced computer models, atmospheric observations, and artificial intelligence techniques, Sun4Cast provides 0- to 6-hour nowcasts of solar irradiance and the resulting power production for specific solar facilities at 15-minute intervals. This enables utilities to continuously anticipate the amount of available solar energy.In addition, forecasts extend out to 72 hours, allowing utility officials to make decisions in advance for balancing solar with other sources of energy.Solar irradiance is notoriously difficult to predict. It is affected not just by the locations and types of clouds, but also a myriad of other atmospheric conditions, such as the amount of dust and other particles in the air, relative humidity, and air pollution. Further complicating the forecast, freshly fallen snow, nearby steep mountainsides, or even passing cumulus clouds can reflect sunlight in a way that can increase the amount of energy produced by solar panels.To design a system to forecast solar energy output, NCAR and its partners drew on an array of observing instruments, including satellites, radars, and sky imagers; specialized software; and mathematical and artificial intelligence techniques. Central to Sun4Cast is a new computer model of the atmosphere that simulates solar irradiance based on meteorological conditions. Called WRF-SolarTM, the model is derived from the NCAR-based Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model, which is widely used by meteorological agencies worldwide.The team tested the system in geographically diverse areas, including Long Island, New York; the Colorado mountains; and coastal California."We have to provide utilities with confidence that the system maintains a high degree of accuracy year-round in very different types of terrain," said Branko Kosovic, NCAR Program Manager for Renewable Energy.In addition to aiding the solar power industry, the work can also improve weather forecasting in general because of improved cloud prediction.NCAR's numerous partners on the project in the public and private sectors included:Government labs: National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Brookhaven National Laboratory, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory, and other NOAA facilities; Universities: The Pennsylvania State University, Colorado State University, University of Hawaii, and University of Washington; Utilities: Long Island Power Authority, New York Power Authority, Public Service Company of Colorado, Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), Southern California Edison, and the Hawaiian Electric Company; Independent system operators: New York ISO, Xcel Energy, SMUD, California ISO, and Hawaiian Electric; and Commercial forecast providers: Schneider Electric, Atmospheric and Environmental Research, Global Weather Corporation, MDA Information Systems, and Solar Consulting Services.Computing time was provided by the New York State Department of Economic Development's Division of Science, Technology and Innovation on an IBM Blue Gene supercomputer at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Researchers also performed computing at the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center and the DOE National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center.About the SunShot InitiativeThe U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative is a collaborative national effort that aggressively drives innovation to make solar energy fully cost-competitive with traditional energy sources before the end of the decade. Through SunShot, the Energy Department supports efforts by private companies, universities, and national laboratories to drive down the cost of solar electricity to $0.06 per kilowatt-hour.

US taps NCAR technology for new water resources forecasts

BOULDER, Colo. — As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) this month launches a comprehensive system for forecasting water resources in the United States, it is turning to technology developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and its university and agency collaborators.WRF-Hydro, a powerful NCAR-based computer model, is the first nationwide operational system to provide continuous predictions of water levels and potential flooding in rivers and streams from coast to coast. NOAA's new Office of Water Prediction selected it last year as the core of the agency's new National Water Model."WRF-Hydro gives us a continuous picture of all of the waterways in the contiguous United States," said NCAR scientist David Gochis, who helped lead its development. "By generating detailed forecast guidance that is hours to weeks ahead, it will help officials make more informed decisions about reservoir levels and river navigation, as well as alerting them to dangerous events like flash floods."WRF-Hydro (WRF stands for Weather Research and Forecasting) is part of a major Office of Water Prediction initiative to bolster U.S. capabilities in predicting and managing water resources. By teaming with NCAR and the research community, NOAA's National Water Center is developing a new national water intelligence capability, enabling better impacts-based forecasts for management and decision making.The new WRF-Hydro computer model simulates streams and other aspects of the hydrologic system in far more detail than previously possible. (Image by NOAA Office of Water Prediction.) Unlike past streamflow models, which provided forecasts every few hours and only for specific points along major river systems, WRF-Hydro provides continuous forecasts of millions of points along rivers, streams, and their tributaries across the contiguous United States. To accomplish this, it simulates the entire hydrologic system — including snowpack, soil moisture, local ponded water, and evapotranspiration — and rapidly generates output on some of the nation's most powerful supercomputers.WRF-Hydro was developed in collaboration with NOAA and university and agency scientists through the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science, the U.S. Geological Survey, Israel Hydrologic Service, and Baron Advanced Meteorological Services. Funding came from NOAA, NASA, and the National Science Foundation, which is NCAR's sponsor."WRF-Hydro is a perfect example of the transition from research to operations," said Antonio (Tony) J. Busalacchi, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which manages NCAR on behalf of the National Science Foundation (NSF). "It builds on the NSF investment in basic research in partnership with other agencies, helps to accelerate collaboration with the larger research community, and culminates in support of a mission agency such as NOAA. The use of WRF-Hydro in an operational setting will also allow for feedback from operations to research. In the end this is a win-win situation for all parties involved, chief among them the U.S. taxpayers.""Through our partnership with NCAR and the academic and federal water community, we are bringing the state of the science in water forecasting and prediction to bear operationally," said Thomas Graziano, director of NOAA’s new Office of Water Prediction at the National Weather Service.Filling in the water pictureThe continental United States has a vast network of rivers and streams, from major navigable waterways such as the Mississippi and Columbia to the remote mountain brooks flowing from the high Adirondacks into the Hudson River. The levels and flow rates of these watercourses have far-reaching implications for water availability, water quality, and public safety.Until now, however, it has not been possible to predict conditions at all points in the nation's waterways. Instead, computer models have produced a limited picture by incorporating observations from about 4,000 gauges, generally on the country's bigger rivers. Smaller streams and channels are largely left out of these forecast models, and stretches of major rivers for tens of miles are often not predicted — meaning that schools, bridges, and even entire towns can be vulnerable to unexpected changes in river levels.To fill in the picture, NCAR scientists have worked for the past several years with their colleagues within NOAA, other federal agencies, and universities to combine a range of atmospheric, hydrologic, and soil data into a single forecasting system.The resulting National Water Model, based on WRF-Hydro, simulates current and future conditions on rivers and streams along points two miles apart across the contiguous United States. Along with an hourly analysis of current hydrologic conditions, the National Water Model generates three predictions: an hourly 0- to 15-hour short-range forecast, a daily 0- to 10-day medium-range forecast, and a daily 0- to 30-day long-range water resource forecast.The National Water Model predictions using WRF-Hydro offer a wide array of benefits for society. They will help local, state, and federal officials better manage reservoirs, improve navigation along major rivers, plan for droughts, anticipate water quality problems caused by lower flows, and monitor ecosystems for issues such as whether conditions are favorable for fish spawning. By providing a national view, this will also help the Federal Emergency Management Agency deploy resources more effectively in cases of simultaneous emergencies, such as a hurricane in the Gulf Coast and flooding in California."We've never had such a comprehensive system before," Gochis said. "In some ways, the value of this is a blank page yet to be written."A broad spectrum of observationsWRF-Hydro is a powerful forecasting system that incorporates advanced meteorological and streamflow observations, including data from nearly 8,000 U.S. Geological Survey streamflow gauges across the country. Using advanced mathematical techniques, the model then simulates current and future conditions for millions of points on every significant river, steam, tributary, and catchment in the United States.In time, scientists will add additional observations to the model, including snowpack conditions, lake and reservoir levels, subsurface flows, soil moisture, and land-atmosphere interactions such as evapotranspiration, the process by which water in soil, plants, and other land surfaces evaporates into the atmosphere.Scientists over the last year have demonstrated the accuracy of WRF-Hydro by comparing its simulations to observations of streamflow, snowpack, and other variables. They will continue to assess and expand the system as the National Water Model begins operational forecasts.NCAR scientists maintain and update the open-source code of WRF-Hydro, which is available to the academic community and others. WRF-Hydro is widely used by researchers, both to better understand water resources and floods in the United States and other countries such as Norway, Germany, Romania, Turkey, and Israel, and to project the possible impacts of climate change."At any point in time, forecasts from the new National Water Model have the potential to impact 300 million people," Gochis said. "What NOAA and its collaborator community are doing is trying to usher in a new era of bringing in better physics and better data into forecast models for improving situational awareness and hydrologic decision making."CollaboratorsBaron Advanced Meteorological Services Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic ScienceIsrael Hydrologic ServiceNational Center for Atmospheric ResearchNational Oceanic and Atmospheric AdministrationU.S. Geological SurveyFundersNational Science FoundationNational Aeronautics and Space AdministrationNational Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Climate change already accelerating sea level rise, study finds

BOULDER, Colo. — Greenhouse gases are already having an accelerating effect on sea level rise, but the impact has so far been masked by the cataclysmic 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, according to a new study led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).Satellite observations, which began in 1993, indicate that the rate of sea level rise has held fairly steady at about 3 millimeters per year. But the expected acceleration due to climate change is likely hidden in the satellite record because of a happenstance of timing: The record began soon after the Pinatubo eruption, which temporarily cooled the planet, causing sea levels to drop.The new study finds that the lower starting point effectively distorts the calculation of sea level rise acceleration for the last couple of decades.The study lends support to climate model projections, which show the rate of sea level rise escalating over time as the climate warms. The findings were published today in the open-access Nature journal Scientific Reports.Mount Pinatubo's caldera on June 22, 1991. (Image courtesy USGS.)"When we used climate model runs designed to remove the effect of the Pinatubo eruption, we saw the rate of sea level rise accelerating in our simulations," said NCAR scientist John Fasullo, who led the study. "Now that the impacts of Pinatubo have faded, this acceleration should become evident in the satellite measurements in the coming decade, barring another major volcanic eruption."Study co-author Steve Nerem, from the University of Colorado Boulder, added: “This study shows that large volcanic eruptions can significantly impact the satellite record of global average sea level change. So we must be careful to consider these effects when we look for the effects of climate change in the satellite-based sea level record."The findings have implications for the extent of sea level rise this century and may be useful to coastal communities planning for the future. In recent years, decision makers have debated whether these communities should make plans based on the steady rate of sea level rise measured in recent decades or based on the accelerated rate expected in the future by climate scientists.The study was funded by NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the National Science Foundation, which is NCAR's sponsor.Reconstructing a pre-Pinatubo worldClimate change triggers sea level rise in a couple of ways: by warming the ocean, which causes the water to expand, and by melting glaciers and ice sheets, which drain into the ocean and increase its volume. In recent decades, the pace of warming and melting has accelerated, and scientists have expected to see a corresponding increase in the rate of sea level rise. But analysis of the relatively short satellite record has not borne that out.To investigate, Fasullo, Nerem, and Benjamin Hamlington of Old Dominion University worked to pin down how quickly sea levels were rising in the decades before the satellite record began.Prior to the launch of the international TOPEX/Poseidon satellite mission in late 1992, sea level was mainly measured using tide gauges. While records from some gauges stretch back to the 18th century, variations in measurement technique and location mean that the pre-satellite record is best used to get a ballpark estimate of global mean sea level.Mount Pinatubo erupting in 1991. (Image courtesy USGS.)To complement the historic record, the research team used a dataset produced by running the NCAR-based Community Earth System Model 40 times with slightly different—but historically plausible—starting conditions. The resulting simulations characterize the range of natural variability in the factors that affect sea levels. The model was run on the Yellowstone system at the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center.A separate set of model runs that omitted volcanic aerosols — particles spewed into the atmosphere by an eruption — was also assessed. By comparing the two sets of runs, the scientists were able to pick out a signal (in this case, the impact of Mount Pinatubo's eruption) from the noise (natural variations in ocean temperature and other factors that affect sea level)."You can't do it with one or two model runs—or even three or four," Fasullo said. "There's just too much accompanying climate noise to understand precisely what the effect of Pinatubo was. We could not have done it without large numbers of runs."Using models to understand observationsAnalyzing the simulations, the research team found that Pinatubo's eruption caused the oceans to cool and sea levels to drop by about 6 millimeters immediately before TOPEX/Poseidon began recording observations.As the sunlight-blocking aerosols from Mount Pinatubo dissipated in the simulations, sea levels began to slowly rebound to pre-eruption levels. This rebound swamped the acceleration caused by the warming climate and made the rate of sea level rise higher in the mid- to late 1990s than it would otherwise have been.This higher-than-normal rate of sea level rise in the early part of the satellite record makes it appear that the rate of sea level rise has not accelerated over time and may actually have decreased somewhat. In fact, according to the study, if the Pinatubo eruption had not occurred—leaving sea level at a higher starting point in the early 1990s—the satellite record would have shown a clear acceleration."The satellite record is unable to account for everything that happened before the first satellite was launched, " Fasullo said. "This study is a great example of how computer models can give us the historical context that's needed to understand some of what we're seeing in the satellite record."Understanding whether the rate of sea level rise is accelerating or remaining constant is important because it drastically changes what sea levels might look like in 20, 50, or 100 years.“These scientists have disentangled the major role played by the 1991 volcanic eruption of Mt. Pinatubo on trends in global mean sea level,” said Anjuli Bamzai, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences, which funded the research.  “This research is vital as society prepares for the potential effects of climate change."Because the study's findings suggest that acceleration due to climate change is already under way, the acceleration should become evident in the satellite record in the coming decade, Fasullo said.Since the original TOPEX/Poseidon mission, other satellites have been launched—Jason-1 in 2001 and Jason-2 in 2008—to continue tracking sea levels. The most recent satellite, Jason-3, launched on Jan. 17 of this year."Sea level rise is potentially one of the most damaging impacts of climate change, so it's critical that we understand how quickly it will rise in the future," Fasullo said. "Measurements from Jason-3 will help us evaluate what we've learned in this study and help us better plan for the future."The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research manages the National Center for Atmospheric Research under sponsorship by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.The graph shows how sea level rises and falls as ocean heat content fluctuates. After volcanic eruptions, the Earth cools and, in turn, the heat content in the ocean drops, ultimately lowering sea level.The solid blue line is the average sea level rise of climate model simulations that include volcanic eruptions. The green line is the average from model simulations with the effect of volcanic eruptions removed, and it shows a smooth acceleration in the rate of sea level rise due to climate change.The blue line between the start of the satellite record and present day makes a relatively straight line — just as we see from actual satellite observations during that time —  indicating that the rate of sea level rise has not accelerated. But in the future, barring another major volcanic eruption, scientists expect sea level to follow the gray dotted line, which is on the same accelerating path as the green line below it. Click to enlarge. (©UCAR. This graph is freely available for media & nonprofit use.) About the articleTitle: Is the detection of sea level rise imminent?Authors: J.T. Fasullo, R. S. Nerem, and B. HamlingtonJournal: Scientific Reports, DOI: 10.1038/srep31245 Funders:  NASANational Science FoundationU.S. Department of Energy Collaborators: Univesity of Colorado Boulder (UCAR member)Old Dominion University (UCAR member)Writer:Laura Snider, Senior Science Writer and Public Information Officer


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