FLOOD PRESSURE: A warning sign is submerged during a 2009 flood in the U.K. (Photo: Getty Images)
Charles Dudley Warner, a 19th-century American writer and friend of Mark Twain, once famously said that "everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." More than a century later, we're still at the mercy of the atmosphere — and perhaps even more perilously than in Warner's day.
People have devised some clever ways to influence weather over the years, from seeding clouds and disrupting cyclones to fighting climate change with geoengineering. There's still not much we can do to control weather, but Warner might be pleased to know we're not just twiddling our thumbs. Rather than trying to stop storms in their tracks, for example, today's weather warriors are more interested in predicting when those storms will form, how strong they'll be and where their tracks will take them.
Friday is World Meteorological Day, a holiday that honors the 61-year-old U.N. World Meteorological Organization. It serves as a global reminder of how far weather forecasting has come in the past 100 years, as well as how much further it will need to go in the next 100. These are turbulent times for meteorology, a fast-growing field that has a stigma of doubting climate science, yet one that's also uniquely poised to help humanity endure the erratic and extreme weather of a warming world.
The official theme for World Meteorological Day 2012 is "Powering our future with weather, climate and water." As WMO chief Michel Jarraud explains in a statement, "the examples of this are myriad. Our food and farming supply must be tailored to the climate of a region and the available water. Industrial processes need ample water and energy. Cities need clean air and protection from storms and floods. International trade and tourism depend on safe and efficient transportation."
While global warming is a broad, long-term problem, Jarraud adds that its effects on local, short-term issues like water availability and weather highlight the growing importance of meteorology and hydrology. "Now more than ever, we need climate projections for the future," Jarraud says. "And we need to increase our knowledge about how global climate phenomena play out at regional, national and local levels."
That doesn't necessarily mean linking individual storms to climate change, but it does mean accepting that severe weather events in general — things like the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, the 2011 U.S. tornado outbreaks, the 2011 Mississippi River floods and the ongoing Texas drought — are becoming more common as Earth heats up. This is largely because more heat evaporates more surface water and produces more fuel for storms, whether they're tornadoes in Kansas or typhoons in Korea.
All the complexities of a changing climate make predicting its next move a daunting task, however, especially with the stakes so high. More than half of the U.S. population now lives in coastal counties, meaning that some 160 million people are in the firing line for hurricanes, coastal flooding and sea-level rise. Severe weather can wreak havoc in more rural and inland areas, too, as seen in the recent floods, droughts, wildfires and tornado outbreaks across the U.S. Plains, Midwest and Southeast.
Yet regardless of whether they accept the science behind climate change, meteorologists will be increasingly important in the coming decades as weather grows wilder. Missouri forecaster Eric Wise, for one, was honored by the National Weather Service last year for his work leading up to the EF-5 tornado that hit Joplin, Mo., in May 2011. The storm took a heavy toll, killing 159 people and causing $3 billion in damage, but it may have been even worse if not for Wise's warnings. "Because of Eric Wise, the people of Joplin had well over 20 minutes of lead time," Missouri University meteorology professor Patrick Market said in a statement about the award. "We know how many people died that day, but we will never know how many lives were saved that day because of Eric's early tornado warning."
Such heroics will be needed more and more over the coming decades, both to save lives and to avert economic calamities. As Jarraud points out, the expected tide of weather disasters could spell trouble for countries still recovering from the recession. "We rely on up-to-the minute, reliable weather forecasts for everything ranging from social activities to multimillion-dollar decisions," Jarraud says. "According to one recent study, U.S. economic output varies by up to $485 billion a year — about 3.4 percent of gross domestic product — owing to weather variability."
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