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Meteorologists pressured to improve forecasts amid more extreme weather events

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Weather forecasters from around the world are gathering in Baltimore this week for the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society. Try saying that five times fast.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You just said it great - American Meteorological Society.

FADEL: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: All right.

FADEL: They meet at a time when the stakes for forecasters have never been higher. Climate change is bringing extreme heat and more powerful storms. Making sure the forecast is right and that the public listens to it can be a matter of life or death.

Greg Carbin is attending the conference. He's the chief of forecast operations at the National Weather Service, and he joins me now. Good morning, Greg.

GREG CARBIN: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So are meteorologists feeling the pressure to improve their forecasts amid these extreme weather events?

CARBIN: Well, I think it is a - it can be, at times, a stressful job, for sure, predicting the future. But overall, I think meteorology is a great good-news story for science. The improvements we've seen in forecasts are remarkable.

FADEL: I mean, the weather, though, is so erratic. I was walking around in a T-shirt in 80-degree weather the other day here in D.C. in January, just after freezing temperatures and snow. With these swings, does it make it harder at all?

CARBIN: It can. The pattern can go into regimes that are generally quite predictable, especially during the summertime with heat waves. Those are very predictable events that we can see many days in advance. And once they're locked in, really, these day-to-day forecasts don't change very much. However, the danger can increase with extended heat, as we saw last summer.

Quick-moving systems, like we saw in the mid-Atlantic last week with snow followed by unusual warmth, can be more difficult to predict and actually even more difficult to adjust to from one swing to the next. But overall, forecasts have improved dramatically in recent years, and the ability to foresee these changes is actually quite good in the meteorology that we use today.

FADEL: Now, you describe a lot of good news there - that, really, the science is there. But a University of Arizona study last year said that a one-degree difference in a forecast accuracy during a heat wave can be the difference between life and death and that if you could improve the forecast by 50%, then you could save over 2,000 lives. I mean, is that even feasible?

CARBIN: It is. But at the same time, what's more important, perhaps, in these dangerous, hazardous weather forecasts is getting the message out. I think the public generally understands there's inherent uncertainty in forecasting the weather, but also that weather forecasters, especially local forecasters, broadcast meteorologists, are some of the most trusted scientists that we have. People really do trust the message that they're getting. And so it's key that the forecast information be translated by broadcasters and others to the communities that need the information.

FADEL: Is that a challenge, getting that information to where it needs to be?

CARBIN: It's a huge challenge, and it becomes more of a challenge every day, almost, as more and more information is available that needs to be pored over by experts and basically translated in a way that can be understood by various publics.

FADEL: You said various publics. When you think about those who often don't get access to this information, who are they?

CARBIN: Well, there's a lot of folks that are living in vulnerable areas. And there's - there are language issues, translation issues. Some of the more vulnerable locations include coastal areas, where we see sea level rise causing a problem with increasing storm surge and damage along the coast. We also see, you know, unfortunate levels of poverty in parts of the country that are most susceptible to dangerous storms and climate change, especially heat waves in the South, severe storms in the Midwest. Those are some of the populations that need to get the message early so that they can begin to take some actions and build resilience into those communities.

FADEL: Greg Carbin is the chief of forecast operations at the National Weather Service. Thank you.

CARBIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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