From April 2nd-5th I attended the workshop on Predictability, dynamics and applications research using the TIGGE and S2S ensembles at ECMWF in Reading. TIGGE (The International Grand Global Ensemble, formerly THORPEX International Grand Global Ensemble) and S2S (Sub-seasonal-to-Seasonal) are datasets hosted at primarily at ECMWF as part of initiatives by the World Weather Research Programme (WWRP) and the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP). TIGGE has been running since 2006 and stores operational medium-range forecasts (up to 16 days) from 10 global weather centres, whilst S2S has been operational since 2015 and houses extended-range (up to 60 days) forecasts from 11 different global weather centres (e.g. ECMWF, NCEP, UKMO, Meteo-France, CMA…etc.). The benefit of these centralised datasets is their common format, which enables straightforward data requests and multi-model analysis with minimal data manipulation allowing scientists to focus on doing science!
Attendees of the workshop came from around the world (not just Europe) although there was a particularly sizeable cohort from Reading Meteorology and NCAS.
In my PhD so far, I have been making extensive use of the S2S database – looking at both operational and re-forecast datasets to assess stratospheric predictability and biases – and it was rewarding to attend the workshop and see what a diverse range of applications the datasets have across the world. From the oceans to the stratosphere, tropics to poles, predictability mathematics to farmers and energy markets, it was immediately very clear that TIGGE and S2S are wonderfully useful tools for both the research and applications communities. A particular aim of the workshop was to discuss “user-oriented variables” – derived variables from model output which represent the meteorological conditions to which a user is sensitive (such as wind speed at a specific height for wind power applications).
The workshop mainly consisted of 15-minute conference-style talks in the main lecture theatre and poster sessions, but the final two days also featured parallel working group sessions of about 15 members each. The topics discussed in the working groups can be found here. I was part of working group 4, and we discussed dynamical processes and ensemble diagnostics. We reflected on some of the points raised by speakers over the preceding days – particular attention was given to diagnostics needed to understand dynamical effects of model biases (such as their influence on Rossby wave propagation and weather-regime transition) alongside what other variables researchers needed to make full use of the potentials S2S and TIGGE offer (I don’t think I could say “more levels in the stratosphere!” loudly enough – TIGGE does not go above 50 hPa, which is not useful when studying stratospheric warming events defined at 10 hPa).
Data analysis tools are also becoming increasingly important in atmospheric science. Several useful and perhaps less well-known tools were presented at the workshop – Mio Matsueda’s TIGGE and S2S museum websites provide a wide variety of pre-prepared plots of variables like the NAO and MJO which are excellent for exploratory data analysis without needing many gigabytes of data downloads. Figure 2 shows an example of NAO forecasts from S2S data – the systematic negative NAO bias at longer lead-times was frequently discussed during the workshop, whilst the inability to capture the transition to a positive NAO regime beginning around February 10th is worth further analysis. In addition to these, IRI’s Data Library has powerful abilities to manipulate, analyse, plot, and download data from various sources including S2S with server-side computation.
It’s inspiring and motivating to be part of the sub-seasonal forecast research community and I’m excited to present some of my work in the near future!
When I started my PhD, there were no global scale operational seasonal forecasts of river flow or flood hazard. Global overviews of upcoming flood events are key for organisations working at the global scale, from water resources management to humanitarian aid, and for regions where no other local or national forecasts are available. While GloFAS (the Global Flood Awareness System, run by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) and the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC) as part of the Copernicus Emergency Management Services) was producing operational, openly-available flood forecasts out to 30 days ahead, there was a need for more extended-range forecast information. Often, due to a lack of hydrological forecasts, seasonal rainfall forecasts are used as a proxy for flood hazard – however, the link between precipitation and floodiness is nonlinear, and recent research has shown that seasonal rainfall forecasts are not necessarily the best indicator of potential flood hazard. The aim of my PhD research was to look into ways in which we could provide earlier warning information, several weeks to months ahead, using hydrological analysis in addition to the meteorology.
Broadly speaking, there are two key ways in which to provide early warning information on seasonal timescales: (1) through statistical analysis based on large-scale climate variability and teleconnections, and (2) by producing dynamical seasonal forecasts using coupled ocean-atmosphere GCMs. Over the past 4.5 years, I worked on providing hydrologically-relevant seasonal forecast products using these two approaches, at the global scale. This blog post will give a quick overview of the two new forecast products we produced as part of this research!
Can we use El Niño to predict flood hazard?
ENSO (the El Niño Southern Oscillation), is known to influence river flow and flooding across much of the globe, and often, statistical historical probabilities of extreme precipitation during El Niño and La Niña (the extremes of ENSO climate variability) are used to provide information on likely flood impacts. Due to its global influence on weather and climate, we decided to assess whether it is possible to use ENSO as a predictor of flood hazard at the global scale, by assessing the links between ENSO and river flow globally, and estimating the equivalent historical probabilities for high and low river flow, to those that are already used for meteorological variables.
With a lack of sufficient river flow observations across much of the globe, we needed to use a reanalysis dataset – but global reanalysis datasets for river flow are few and far between, and none extended beyond ~40 years (which includes a sample of ≤10 El Niños and ≤13 La Niñas). We ended up producing a 20th Century global river flow reconstruction, by forcing the Camaflood hydrological model with ECMWF’s ERA-20CM atmospheric reconstruction, to produce a 10-member river flow dataset covering 1901-2010, which we called ERA-20CM-R.
Using this dataset, we calculated the percentage of past El Niño and La Niña events, during which the monthly mean river flow exceeded a high flow threshold (the 75th percentile of the 110-year climatology) or fell below a low flow threshold (the 25th percentile), for each month of an El Niño / La Niña. This percentage is then taken as the probability that high or low flow will be observed in future El Niño/La Niña events. Maps of these probabilities are shown above, for El Niño, and all maps for both El Niño and La Niña can be found here. When comparing to the same historical probabilities calculated for precipitation, it is evident that additional information can be gained from considering the hydrology. For example, the River Nile in northern Africa is likely to see low river flow, even though the surrounding area is likely to see more precipitation – because it is influenced more by changes in precipitation upstream. In places that are likely to see more precipitation but in the form of snow, there would be no influence on river flow or flood hazard during the time when more precipitation is expected. However, several months later, there may be no additional precipitation expected, but there may be increased flood hazard due to the melting of more snow than normal – so we’re able to see a lagged influence of ENSO on river flow in some regions.
While there are locations where these probabilities are high and can provide a useful forecast of hydrological extremes, across much of the globe, the probabilities are lower and much more uncertain (see here for more info on uncertainty in these forecasts) than might be useful for decision-making purposes.
Providing openly-available seasonal river flow forecasts, globally
For the next ‘chapter’ of my PhD, we looked into the feasibility of providing seasonal forecasts of river flow at the global scale. Providing global-scale flood forecasts in the medium-range has only become possible in recent years, and extended-range flood forecasting was highlighted as a grand challenge and likely future development in hydro-meteorological forecasting.
To do this, I worked with Ervin Zsoter at ECMWF, to drive the GloFAS hydrological model (Lisflood) with reforecasts from ECMWF’s latest seasonal forecasting system, SEAS5, to produce seasonal forecasts of river flow. We also forced Lisflood with the new ERA5 reanalysis, to produce an ERA5-R river flow reanalysis with which to initialise Lisflood, and to provide a climatology. The system set-up is shown in the flowchart below.
I also worked with colleagues at ECMWF to design forecast products for a GloFAS seasonal outlook, based on a combination of features from the GloFAS flood forecasts, and the EFAS (the European Flood Awareness System) seasonal outlook, and incorporating feedback from users of EFAS.
After ~1 year of working on getting the system set up and finalising the forecast products, including a four-month research placement at ECMWF, the first GloFAS -Seasonal forecast was released in November 2017, with the release of SEAS5. GloFAS-Seasonal is now running operationally at ECMWF, providing forecasts of high and low weekly-averaged river flow for the global river network, up to 4 months ahead, with 3 new forecast layers available through the GloFAS interface. These provide a forecast overview for 307 major river basins, a map of the forecast for the entire river network at the sub-basin scale, and ensemble hydrographs at thousands of locations across the globe (which change with each forecast depending on forecast probabilities). New forecasts are produced once per month, and released on the 10th of each month. You can find more information on each of the different forecast layers and the system set-up here, and you can access the (openly available) forecasts here. ERA5-R, ERA-20CM-R and the GloFAS-Seasonal reforecasts are also all freely available – just get in touch! GloFAS-Seasonal will continue to be developed by ECMWF and the JRC, and has already been updated to v2.0, including a calibrated version of the hydrological model.
So, over the course of my PhD, we developed two new seasonal forecasts for hydrological extremes, at the global scale. You may be wondering whether they’re skilful, or in fact, which one provides the most useful forecasts! For information on the skill or ‘potential usefulness’ of GloFAS-Seasonal, head to our paper, and stay tuned for a paper coming soon (hopefully! [update: this paper has just been accepted and can be accessed online here]) on the ‘most useful approach for forecasting hydrological extremes during El Niño’, in which we compare the skill of the two forecasts at predicting observed high and low flow events during El Niño.
With thanks to my PhD supervisors & co-authors:
Hannah Cloke1, Liz Stephens1, Florian Pappenberger2, Steve Woolnough1, Ervin Zsoter2, Peter Salamon3, Louise Arnal1,2, Christel Prudhomme2, Davide Muraro3
1University of Reading, 2ECMWF, 3European Commission Joint Research Centre
Atmospheric blocks are nearly stationary large-scale flow features that effectively block the prevailing westerly winds and redirect mobile cyclones. They are typically characterised by a synoptic-scale, quasi-stationary high pressure system in the midlatitudes that can remain over a region for several weeks. Blocking events can cause extreme weather: heat waves in summer and cold spells in winter, and the impacts associated with these events can escalate due to a block’s persistence. Because of this, it is important that we can forecast blocking accurately. However, atmospheric blocking has been shown to be the cause of some of the poorest forecasts in recent years. Looking at all occasions when the ECMWF model experienced a period of very low forecast skill, Rodwell et al. (2013) found that the average flow pattern for which these forecasts verified was an easily-distinguishable atmospheric blocking pattern (Figure 1). But why are blocks so hard to forecast?
There are several reasons why forecasting blocking is a challenge. Firstly, there is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes a block. Several different flow configurations that could be referred to as blocks are shown in Figure 2. The variety in flow patterns used to define blocking brings with it a variety of mechanisms that are dynamically important for blocks developing in a forecast (Woollings et al. 2018). Firstly, many phenomena must be well represented in a model for it to forecast all blocking events accurately. Secondly, there is no complete dynamical theory for block onset and maintenance- we do not know if a process key for blocking dynamics is missing from the equation set solved by numerical weather prediction models and is contributing to the forecast error. Finally, many of the known mechanisms associated with block onset and maintenance are also know sources of model uncertainty. For example, diabatic processes within extratropical cyclones have been shown to contribute substantially to blocking events (Pfahl et al. 2015), the parameterisation of which has been shown to affect medium-range forecasts of ridge building events (Martínez-Alvarado et al. 2015).
We do, however, know some ways to improve the representation of blocking: increase the horizontal resolution of the model (Schiemann et al. 2017); improve the parameterisation of subgrid physical processes (Jung et al. 2010); remove underlying model biases (Scaife et al. 2010); and in my PhD we found that improvements to a model’s dynamical core (the part of the model used to solved the governing equations) can also improve the medium-range forecast of blocking. In Figure 3, the frequency of blocking that occurred during two northern hemisphere winters is shown for the ERA-Interim reanalysis and three operational weather forecast centres (the ECMWF, Met Office (UKMO) and the Korean Meteorological Administration (KMA)). Both KMA and UKMO use the Met Office Unified Model – however, before the winter of 2014/15 the UKMO updated the model to use a new dynamical core whilst KMA continued to use the original. This means that for the 2013/14 the UKMO and KMA forecasts are from the same model with the same dynamical core whilst for the 2014/15 winter the UKMO and KMA forecasts are from the same model but with different dynamical cores. The clear improvement in forecast from the UKMO in 2014/15 can hence be attributed to the new dynamical core. For a full analysis of this improvement see Martínez-Alvarado et al. (2018).
In the remainder of my PhD I aim to investigate the link between errors in forecasts of blocking with the representation of upstream cyclones. I am particularly interested to see if the parameterisation of diabatic processes (a known source of model uncertainty) could be causing the downstream error in Rossby wave amplification and blocking.
Rodwell, M. J., and Coauthors, 2013: Characteristics of occasional poor medium-range weather forecasts for Europe. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 94 (9), 1393–1405.
Woollings, T., and Coauthors, 2018: Blocking and its response to climate change. Current Climate Change Reports, 4 (3), 287–300.
Pfahl, S., C. Schwierz, M. Croci-Maspoli, C. Grams, and H. Wernli, 2015: Importance of latent heat release in ascending air streams for atmospheric blocking. Nature Geoscience, 8 (8), 610– 614.
Mart´ınez-Alvarado, O., E. Madonna, S. Gray, and H. Joos, 2015: A route to systematic error in forecasts of Rossby waves. Quart. J. Roy. Meteor. Soc., 142, 196–210.
Mart´ınez-Alvarado, O., and R. Plant, 2014: Parametrized diabatic processes in numerical simulations of an extratropical cyclone. Quart. J. Roy. Meteor. Soc., 140 (682), 1742–1755.
Scaife, A. A., T. Woollings, J. Knight, G. Martin, and T. Hinton, 2010: Atmospheric blocking and mean biases in climate models. Journal of Climate, 23 (23), 6143–6152.
Schiemann, R., and Coauthors, 2017: The resolution sensitivity of northern hemisphere blocking in four 25-km atmospheric global circulation models. Journal of Climate, 30 (1), 337–358.
Jung, T., and Coauthors, 2010: The ECMWF model climate: Recent progress through improved physical parametrizations. Quart. J. Roy. Meteor. Soc., 136 (650), 1145–1160.
Over the past ~decade, extended-range forecasts of river flow have begun to emerge around the globe, combining meteorological forecasts with hydrological models to provide seasonal hydro-meteorological outlooks. Seasonal forecasts of river flow could be useful in providing early indications of potential floods and droughts; information that could be of benefit for disaster risk reduction, resilience and humanitarian aid, alongside applications in agriculture and water resource management.
“Ultimately, the most informative forecasts of flood hazard at the seasonal scale are streamflow forecasts using hydrological models calibrated for individual river basins. While this is more computationally and resource intensive, better forecasts of seasonal flood risk could be of immense use to the disaster preparedness community.”
Over the past months, researchers in the Water@Reading* research group have been working with the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), to set up a new global scale hydro-meteorological seasonal forecasting system. Last week, on 10th November 2017, the new forecasting system was officially launched as an addition to the Global Flood Awareness System (GloFAS). GloFAS is co-developed by ECMWF and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), as part of the Copernicus Emergency Management Services, and provides flood forecasts for the entire globe up to 30 days in advance. Now, GloFAS also provides seasonal river flow outlooks for the global river network, out to 4 months ahead – meaning that for the first time, operational seasonal river flow forecasts exist at the global scale – providing globally consistent forecasts, and forecasts for countries and regions where no other forecasts are available.
The seasonal outlook is displayed as three new layers in the GloFAS web interface, which is publicly (and freely) available at www.globalfloods.eu. The first of these gives a global overview of the maximum probability of unusually high or low river flow (defined as flow exceeding the 80th or falling below the 20th percentile of the model climatology), during the 4-month forecast horizon, in each of the 306 major world river basins used in GloFAS-Seasonal.
The second layer provides further sub-basin-scale detail, by displaying the global river network (all pixels with an upstream area >1500km2), again coloured according to the maximum probability of unusually high or low river flow during the 4-month forecast horizon. In the third layer, reporting points with global coverage are displayed, where more forecast information is available. At these points, an ensemble hydrograph is provided showing the 4-month forecast of river flow, with thresholds for comparison of the forecast to typical or extreme conditions based on the model climatology. Also displayed is a persistence diagram showing the weekly probability of exceedance for the current and previous three forecasts.
Over the coming months, an evaluation of the system will be completed – for now, users are advised to evaluate the forecasts for their particular application. We welcome any feedback on the forecast visualisations and skill – feel free to contact me at the email address below!
To find out more, you can see the University’s press release here, further information on SEAS5 here, and the user information on the seasonal outlook GloFAS layers here.
*Water@Reading is “a vibrant cross-faculty centre of research excellence at the University of Reading, delivering world class knowledge in water science, policy and societal impacts for the UK and internationally.”
Full list of collaborators:
Rebecca Emerton1,2, Ervin Zsoter1,2, Louise Arnal1,2, Prof. Hannah Cloke1, Dr. Liz Stephens1, Dr. Florian Pappenberger2, Prof. Christel Prudhomme2, Dr Peter Salamon3, Davide Muraro3, Gabriele Mantovani3
1 University of Reading 2 ECMWF 3 European Commission JRC
When modelling urban areas, vegetation is often ignored in attempt to simplify an already complex problem. However, vegetation is present in all urban environments and it is not going anywhere… For reasons ranging from sustainability to improvements in human well-being, green spaces are increasingly becoming part of urban planning agendas. Incorporating vegetation is therefore a key part of modelling urban climates. Vegetation provides numerous (dis)services in the urban environment, each of which requires individual attention (Salmond et al. 2016). However, one of my research interests is how vegetation influences the aerodynamic properties of urban areas.
Two aerodynamic parameters can be used to represent the aerodynamic properties of a surface: the zero-plane displacement (zd) and aerodynamic roughness length (z0). The zero-plane displacement is the vertical displacement of the wind-speed profile due to the presence of surface roughness elements. The aerodynamic roughness length is a length scale which describes the magnitude of surface roughness. Together they help define the shape and form of the wind-speed profile which is expected above a surface (Fig. 1).
Figure 1: Representation of the wind-speed profile above a group of roughness elements. The black dots represent an idealised logarithmic wind-speed profile which is determined using the zero-plane displacement (zd) and aerodynamic roughness length (z0) (lines) of the surface.
For an urban site, zd and z0 may be determined using three categories of methods: reference-based, morphometric and anemometric. Reference-based methods require a comparison of the site to previously published pictures or look up tables (e.g. Grimmond and Oke 1999); morphometric methods describe zd and z0 as a function of roughness-element geometry; and, anemometric methods use in-situ observations. The aerodynamic parameters of a site may vary considerably depending upon which of these methods are used, but efforts are being made to understand which parameters are most appropriate to use for accurate wind-speed estimations (Kent et al. 2017a).
Within the morphometric category (i.e. using roughness-element geometry) sophisticated methods have been developed for buildings or vegetation only. However, until recently no method existed to describe the effects of both buildings and vegetation in combination. A recent development overcomes this, whereby the heights of all roughness elements are considered alongside a porosity correction for vegetation (Kent et al. 2017b). Specifically, the porosity correction is applied to the space occupied and drag exerted by vegetation.
The development is assessed across several areas typical of a European city, ranging from a densely-built city centre to an urban park. The results demonstrate that where buildings are the dominant roughness elements (i.e. taller and occupying more space), vegetation does not obviously influence the calculated geometry of the surface, nor the aerodynamic parameters and the estimated wind speed. However, as vegetation begins to occupy a greater amount of space and becomes as tall as (or larger) than buildings, the influence of vegetation is obvious. Expectedly, the implications are greatest in an urban park, where overlooking vegetation means that wind speeds may be slowed by up to a factor of three.
Up to now, experiments such as those in the wind tunnel focus upon buildings or trees in isolation. Certainly, future experiments which consider both buildings and vegetation will be valuable to continue to understand the interaction within and between these roughness elements, in addition to assessing the parameterisation.
Grimmond CSB, Oke TR (1999) Aerodynamic properties of urban areas derived from analysis of surface form. J Appl Meteorol and Clim 38:1262-1292.
Kent CW, Grimmond CSB, Barlow J, Gatey D, Kotthaus S, Lindberg F, Halios CH (2017a) Evaluation of Urban Local-Scale Aerodynamic Parameters: Implications for the Vertical Profile of Wind Speed and for Source Areas. Boundary-Layer Meteorology 164: 183-213.
Kent CW, Grimmond CSB, Gatey D (2017b) Aerodynamic roughness parameters in cities: Inclusion of vegetation. Journal of Wind Engineering and Industrial Aerodynamics 169: 168-176.
Salmond JA, Tadaki M, Vardoulakis S, Arbuthnott K, Coutts A, Demuzere M, Dirks KN, Heaviside C, Lim S, Macintyre H (2016) Health and climate related ecosystem services provided by street trees in the urban environment. Environ Health 15:95.
For a small city, Delft punches above its weight. It is famous for many things, including its celebrated Delftware (Figure 1). It was also the birthplace of one of the Dutch masters, Johannes Vermeer, who coincidentally painted some fine cityscapes with cumulus clouds in them (Figure 2). There is a university of technology with some impressive architecture (Figure 3). It holds the dubious honour of being the location of the first assassination using a pistol (or so we were told by our tour guide), when William of Orange was shot in 1584. To this list, it can now add hosting a one-week conference on the future of cumulus parametrization, and hopefully bringing about more of these conferences in the future.
Figure 1: Delftware.
Figure 2: Delft with canopy of cumulus clouds. By Johannes Vermeer, 1661.
Figure 3: AULA conference centre at Delft University of Technology – where we were based for the duration of the conference.
So what is a cumulus parametrization scheme? The key idea is as follows. Numerical weather and climate models work by splitting the atmosphere into a grid, with a corresponding grid length representing the length of each of the grid cells. By solving equations that govern how the wind, pressure and heating interact, models can then be used to predict what the weather will be like days in advance in the case of weather modelling. Or a model can predict how the climate will react to any forcings over longer timescales. However, any phenomena that are substantially smaller than this grid scale will not be “seen” by the models. For example, a large cumulonimbus cloud may have a horizontal extent of around 2km, whereas individual grid cells could be 50km in the case of a climate model. A cumulonimbus cloud will therefore not be explicitly modelled, but it will still have an effect on the grid cell in which it is located – in terms of how much heating and moistening it produces at different levels. To capture this effect, the clouds are parametrized, that is, the vertical profile of the heating and moistening due to the clouds are calculated based on the conditions in the grid cell, and this then affects the grid-scale values of these variables. A similar idea applies for shallow cumulus clouds, such as the cumulus humilis in Vermeer’s painting (Figure 2), or present-day Delft (Figure 3).
These cumulus parametrization schemes are a large source of uncertainty in current weather and climate models. The conference was aimed at bringing together the community of modellers working on these schemes, and working out which might be the best directions to go in to improve these schemes, and consequently weather and climate models.
Each day was a mixture of listening to presentations, looking at posters and breakout discussion groups in the afternoon, as well as plenty of time for coffee and meeting new people. The presentations covered a lot of ground: from presenting work on state-of-the-art parametrization schemes, to looking at how the schemes perform in operational models, to focusing on one small aspect of a scheme and modelling how that behaves in a high resolution model (50m resolution) that can explicitly model individual clouds. The posters were a great chance to see the in-depth work that had been done, and to talk to and exchange ideas with other scientists.
Certain ideas for improving the parametrization schemes resurfaced repeatedly. The need for scale-awareness, where the response of the parametrization scheme takes into account the model resolution, was discussed. One idea for doing this was the use of stochastic schemes to represent the uncertainty of the number of clouds in a given grid cell. The concept of memory also cropped up – where the scheme remembers if it had been active at a given grid cell in a previous point in time. This also ties into the idea of transitions between cloud regimes, e.g. when a stratocumulus layer splits up into individual cumulus clouds. Many other, sometimes esoteric, concepts were discussed, such as the role of cold pools, how much tuning of climate models is desirable and acceptable, how we should test our schemes, and what the process of developing the schemes should look like.
In the breakout groups, everyone was encouraged to contribute, which made for an inclusive atmosphere in which all points of view were taken on board. Some of the key points of agreement from these were that it was a good idea to have these conferences, and we should do it more often! Hopefully, in two years’ time, another PhD student will write a post on how the next meeting has gone. We also agreed that it would be beneficial to be able to share data from our different high resolution runs, as well as to be able to compare code for the different schemes.
The conference provided a picture of what the current thinking on cumulus parametrization is, as well as which directions people think are promising for the future. It also provided a means for the community to come together and discuss ideas for how to improve these schemes, and how to collaborate more closely with future projects such as ParaCon and HD(CP)2.
When an El Niño is declared, or even forecast, we think back to memorable past El Niños (such as 1997/98), and begin to ask whether we will see the same impacts. Will California receive a lot of rainfall? Will we see droughts in tropical Asia and Australia? Will Peru experience the same devastating floods as in 1997/98, and 1982/83?
El Niño and La Niña, which see changes in the ocean temperatures in the tropical Pacific, are well known to affect weather, and indeed river flow and flooding, around the globe. But how well can we estimate the potential impacts of El Niño and La Niña, and how likely flooding is to occur?
This question is what some of us in the Water@Reading research group at the University of Reading have been looking to answer in our recent publication in Nature Communications. As part of our multi- and inter-disciplinary research, we work closely with the Red Cross / Red Crescent Climate Centre (RCCC), who are working on an initiative called Forecast-based Financing (FbF, Coughlan de Perez et al.). FbF aims to distribute aid (for example providing water purification tablets to prevent spread of disease, or digging trenches to divert flood water) ahead of a flood, based on forecasts. This approach helps to reduce the impact of the flood in the first place, rather than working to undo the damage once the flood has already occurred.
Photo credit: Red Cross / Red Crescent Climate Centre
In Peru, previous strong El Niños in 1982/83 and 1997/98 had resulted in devastating floods in several regions. As such, when forecasts in early 2015 began to indicate a very strong El Niño was developing, the RCCC and forecasters at the Peruvian national hydrological and meteorology agency (SENAMHI) began to look into the likelihood of flooding, and what FbF actions might need to be taken.
Typically, statistical products indicating the historical probability (likelihood [%] based on what happened during past El Niños) of extreme precipitation are used as a proxy for whether a region will experience flooding during an El Niño (or La Niña), such as these maps produced by the IRI (International Research Institute for Climate and Society). You may also have seen maps which circle regions of the globe that will be drier / warmer / wetter / cooler – we’ll come back to these shortly.
These rainfall maps show that Peru, alongside several other regions of the world, is likely to see more rainfall than usual during an El Niño. But does this necessarily mean there will be floods? And what products are out there indicating the effect of El Niño on rivers across the globe?
For organisations working at the global scale, such as the RCCC and other humanitarian aid agencies, global overviews of potential impacts are key in taking decisions on where to focus resources during an El Niño or La Niña. While these maps are useful for looking at the likely changes in precipitation, it has been shown that the link between precipitation and flood magnitude is nonlinear (Stephens et al.), – more rain does not necessarily equal floods – so how does this transfer to the potential for flooding?
The motivation behind this work was to provide similar information, but taking into account the hydrology as well as the meteorology. We wanted to answer the question “what is the probability of flooding during El Niño?” not only for Peru, but for the global river network.
To do this, we have taken the new ECMWF ERA-20CM ensemble model reconstruction of the atmosphere, and run this through a hydrological model to produce the first 20th century global hydrological reconstruction of river flow. Using this new dataset, we have for the first time estimated the historical probability of increased or decreased flood hazard (defined as abnormally high or low river flow) during an El Niño (or La Niña), for the global river network.
The question – “what is the probability of flooding during El Niño?”, however, remains difficult to answer. We now have maps of the probability of abnormally high or low river flow (see Figure 1), and we see clear differences between the hydrological analysis and precipitation. It is also evident that the probabilities themselves are often lower, and much more uncertain, than might be useful – how do you make a decision on whether to provide aid to an area worried about flooding, when the probability of that flooding is 50%?
The likely impacts are much more complex than is often perceived and reported – going back to the afore-mentioned maps that circle regions of the globe and what their impact will be (warmer, drier, wetter?) – these maps portray these impacts as a certainty, not a probability, with the same impacts occurring across huge areas. For example, in Figure 2, we take one of the maps from our results, which indicates the probability of increased or decreased flood hazard in one month during an El Niño, and draw over this these oft-seen circles of potential impacts. In doing this, we remove all information on how likely (or unlikely) the impacts are, smaller scale changes within these circles (in some cases our flood hazard map even indicates a different impact), and a lot of the potential impacts outside of these circles – not to mention the likely impacts can change dramatically from one month to the next. For those organisations that take actions based on such information, it is important to be aware of the uncertainties surrounding the likely impacts of El Niño and La Niña.
“We conclude that while it may seem possible to use historical probabilities to evaluate regions across the globe that are more likely to be at risk of flooding during an El Niño / La Niña, and indeed circle large areas of the globe under one banner of wetter or drier, the reality is much more complex.”
PS. During the winter of 2015/16, our results estimated an ~80% likelihood of increased flood hazard in northern coastal Peru, with only ~10% uncertainty surrounding this. The RCCC took FbF actions to protect thousands of families from potentially devastating floods driven by one of the strongest El Niños on records. While flooding did occur, this was not as severe as expected based on the strength of the El Niño. More recently, during the past few months (January – March 2017), anomalously high sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the far eastern Pacific (known as a “coastal El Niño” in Peru but not widely acknowledged as an El Niño because central Pacific SSTs are not anomalously warm) have led to devastating flooding in several regions and significant loss of life. And Peru wasn’t the only place that didn’t see the impacts it expected in 2015/16; other regions of the world, such as the US, also saw more rainfall than normal in places that were expected to be drier, and California didn’t receive the deluge they were perhaps hoping for. It’s important to remember that no two El Niños are the same, and El Niño will not be the only influence on the weather around the globe. While El Niño and La Niña can provide some added predictability to the atmosphere, the impacts are far from certain.