Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Evolution and Revolution in Weather and Forecasting

If you visited a National Weather Bureau (now the National Weather Service) forecast office in the 1920s, you would have found a team of meteorologists, in all likelihood exclusively male, spending a great deal of time analyzing weather maps.

The Weather Bureau Forecast Office, Washington D.C., 1926 (Source: http://www.photolib.noaa.gov/htmls/wea01302.htm)
That didn't change through the middle of the 20th century, but since then, meteorology, like all of science, has experienced dramatic transformation.  Surface observations are now largely automated.  Remote sensing from space or using ground-based instruments like radars and wind profilers allow us to infer meteorological conditions without taking direct measurements.  Observational data is distributed and processed nearly instantaneously.  Forecasts are produced by suites of numerical models, some running as frequently as every hour. 

As a result, the role of forecasters and meteorologists has changed dramatically.  Today, National Weather Service forecast offices don't look like the one above.  They look like the one below.

Source: NOAA/NWS, Norman, OK
Contrary to fears, automation and innovation haven't resulted in fewer meteorological jobs, but instead job growth that is expected to continue in the future.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics, projects a 12% growth in jobs in the atmospheric sciences from 2016-2026, faster than the average of 7% for all fields (see https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/atmospheric-scientists-including-meteorologists.htm). 

I bring this up because the Alaska Daily News recently ran an article discussing how humans who launch weather balloons are being replaced by automated facilities developed by Vaisala.  

Several groups and individuals have raised concerns about this change.  Some of the concerns may be justified and some not, but it is important for today's students to realize that the way we do things today is not the way we will do things in the future.  It is inevitable that humans will no longer launch weather balloons in the future.   That job will be taken over by either automated systems, or advances in remote sensing using radars and microwave radiometers that will allow us to profile the atmosphere without the need for instruments dangled from a balloon.  This is already happening from both space and ground based systems.  

A pessimist would say that meteorological jobs are doomed, but a more realistic and optimistic perspective is that meteorological jobs will evolve.  Meteorologists know better than most the perils of prediction, but one thing that is sure to happen is innovation-driven change.  The future is bright for those who prepare for the jobs of tomorrow instead of those of today.    

No comments:

Post a Comment