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The nation’s weather forecasting must rise to the challenges of climate change

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell May31,2024

There is a critical need to improve and expand precipitation forecasting in the Western United States. Access to reliable forecasts at timeframes longer than seven days is long overdue, especially in the West, where conditions can rapidly swing between extreme droughts and floods. 

Advancing and updating our precipitation forecasts is beyond necessary for our decision-makers, water agencies, agricultural producers, energy suppliers, tribes and others, so they can take accurate and necessary mitigation actions and put contingency plans in place to protect our cities and our local communities.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is responsible for weather forecasts, provided through the National Weather Service (NWS) and weather and climate research produced by the Office of Atmospheric Research. Together, these agencies support the National Weather Service’s goal of having a “weather-ready nation,” preparing communities for extreme weather, water, and climate events.  

Unfortunately, much more must be done to achieve this goal including increased collaboration between research institutes and agencies.

Currently, NWS issues seven-day forecasts and provides weather models that run out to 16 days. Most of the forecast skill — how well a forecast matches observed conditions — occurs in the first seven days of its modeling. 

Since the mid-1990s, the NWS Climate Prediction Center has also produced outlooks for temperature and precipitation extending from more than two weeks to three months, known as a sub-seasonal to seasonal period. 

Their outlooks have minimal skill for the Western U.S. in key winter months, they’re only slightly better than predicting average weather conditions and have shown little improvement over time. Notably, in some of California’s most extreme water years, the forecast was the opposite of what occurred. Improving longer-range forecasts in the West would allow for better management of extreme droughts and floods as well as the ability to store water and manage it during dry years.

Congress passed the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act in 2017, directing NOAA to improve its sub-seasonal to seasonal forecasting. Then in 2020, NOAA submitted a report to Congress describing actions needed, including jumpstarting a pilot project to improve winter precipitation forecasting for the Western U.S. to support water management. 

Four years later, NOAA has yet to implement this recommendation, nor request funding from Congress to do so. Why is this?

It is quite clear that precipitation forecasts at the sub-seasonal to seasonal time scale are needed to support water project operations, drought preparedness and response and innovative water management strategies such as forecast-informed reservoir operations. 

As documented by NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, and as we know all too well in Southern California and the Western U.S., disasters at both wet and dry extremes are responsible for billions of dollars in losses, damaging our critical infrastructure, including power and telecommunication grids. Being able to predict and plan for extremes is imperative for our local communities and states to aid in decisions and provide support for emergency managers to keep the public immediately informed and prepared for weather phenomena.

California has been no stranger to extreme drought in the last two decades, which is why in 2022, I fought to secure $4 billion in the Inflation Reduction Act to help stabilize the rapidly declining water levels in our drought-affected Colorado River Basin reservoirs. Precipitation forecasting is a key tool for helping basin states and their water agencies, along with government agencies such as the Bureau of Reclamation, manage and monitor drought impacts and make informed decisions on how to manage our storage and allocations.

The federal government unquestionably needs to provide robust and continuous investments into expanding beyond our current forecasting limitations, particularly sub-seasonal to seasonal forecasting. 

The U.S. is notably behind on our predictive precipitation skills, and as climate change continues to ramp up its unpredictability, now more than ever, NOAA, NWS and other agencies must collaborate and devote their time to funding efforts to continue to improve and expand our forecasting tools.

Rep. Grace Napolitano serves as the representative for California’s 31st District. 

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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