Friday, May 9, 2014

The High and Low of Weather

This semester, I audited a course (my first audited course ever) for my research, ATMS 313: Synoptic Weather Forecasting. While the only relevant matters to my research came up in the last two weeks of classes, the class overall was extremely enlightening for me. So far, I thought weather forecasting involved some sort of fancy mathematical formulations and the Met always got it wrong because they weren't good at formulating the equations. Oh, how wrong I was!

The first thing I realized was that weather forecasting is difficult not because we don't know how the atmosphere works - we know it and we know it quite well. Rather, the complexity lies in how the underlying equations are solved. After all, as any engineer or scientist knows, a model is only as good as the accuracy to which it can solved. Another thing I realized was that Atmospheric Sciences is about much more than weather forecasting - from cloud physics to fluid dynamics and even to the levels of complexity of weather forecasting itself (global, synoptic, mesoscopic and micro) - the Science is highly developed with a variety of specialized areas of study.

ATMS 313 also included my participation in the class and national forecasting challenges. In the class challenge, where we had to predict high and low temperatures and precipitation for the period 6Z to 6Z the next day, due by 0Z on the current day. I didn't do very well initially in the class challenge and although I did pick up later, my overall rank remained below the class average. It was better with the national challenge, where I ended within striking distance of the national consensus and even beat it once by the smallest possible margin.

The biggest impact of the subject has been my increased interest in the day's weather and to understand why it's like how it is. For example, there was rain today after two days of near record highs. Does this imply that a cold wave has entered and therefore, there is low pressure somewhere north or east of Illinois? It is these sort of questions that fuel the field of weather forecasting and I was glad to be able to explore it.

In addition, I learned two valuable lessons. One was academic - it is very easy to say that it is going to rain if there is a lot of rain in the forecast; however, if only light rain is being predicted, then it might not rain at all. Put together, it means that predicting the quantity of precipitation (rain or snow) is the hardest part of forecasting weather (together with predicting tornadoes). And second - you never know when old connections come back. I audited this class with another engineering student from Munich who also went to TUM (readers will recall that I interned there in the summer of 2012). Never did I think that my connection with TUM would lead to being able to talk to a student from TUM in America two years later! 

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