Extreme weather events have taken their toll on communities nationwide during the past few years, prompting government researchers to improve weather and climate prediction systems that provide more timely and accurate information to save lives and property at risk from floods, hurricanes, mudslides, wildfires and other natural disasters.
The National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration asked the best minds in the academic community, national labs and the agency itself to submit ideas for substantially upgrading its existing operational prediction model. After a series of rigorous tests, the “winner” was a breakthrough system developed at NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, headed by Venkatachalam “Ram” Ramaswamy.
“Dr. Ramaswamy’s exceptional skills have brought revolutionary advancements in U.S. prediction capability,” said Craig McLean, assistant administrator of NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research. “What the nation knows today of climate science is largely due to his leadership.”
NOAA has multiple systems for predicting weather over days and weeks, and climate over seasons and decades. Ramaswamy led his lab in developing a streamlined modeling system—a unified, highly accurate forecasting model that extends “across timescales ranging from days to seasons to decades to a century,” McLean said.
“People for years have been saying no one is going to be able to develop a model that works at the weather timescale and at the climate timescale, and that is exactly what this model does,” McLean said. It is a “profound advancement of knowledge of the Earth’s climate system.”
Climate refers to a location’s average weather over a period of years. More accurate climate predictions offer economic and national security benefits and reduced risks for farmers, water and fishery managers, transportation planners, public officials and others who use these forecasts to plan days, seasons and decades ahead for excess rainfall, heat waves, winter storms and hurricanes.
In 2012, computational models from Ramaswamy’s lab were the first to predict the anomalous leftward turn of Hurricane Sandy in the Atlantic, and they accurately determined that toxic plumes from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 would not reach the Atlantic.
The improved forecasting accuracy is beneficial for the U.S. commercial weather industry, valued at billions of dollars annually. It also helps inform risk assessments developed by the real estate, insurance and re-insurance, and bond industries, which are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. And information from the lab’s modeling system, which demonstrates the effect of climate on fish populations, helps coastal communities become more resilient.
Ramaswamy’s career-long accomplishments in climate science are broad and varied. He has coauthored nearly 200 peer-reviewed scientific publications on subjects ranging from the impact of aerosols on climate to the effects of ozone on temperature changes in the stratosphere.
“He has been one of the big figures in the field of climate change in terms of really understanding the factors that produce variations in climate,” said James Hurrell, professor at Colorado State University.
Since 1991, Ramaswamy has served as an author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which meets about every six years. These international assessments are the scientific basis for governments worldwide to develop climate-related policies, and they inform United Nations negotiations that have led to multination accords such as the Paris Climate Agreement and the Montreal Protocol.
Ramaswamy is now working on creative computational models of additional components believed to contribute to climate change. These include the effects on climate from land surfaces and ice sheets, and the interactions between the oceans and the atmosphere, all dynamic pieces of a complex Earth system, Hurrell said.
The Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory “has been one of a handful of groups that really has been leading that transformation from climate science to Earth system science,” he added.
Ramaswamy credits NOAA with enabling scientists to take a long-haul approach in their research. The agency “takes a chance on federal researchers to come out with something that is going to be unique, long-lasting and benefiting society” and that nobody else is doing, he said.
“That opportunity has been the single biggest motivator for, not only me, but a lot of scientists in this lab, and other such NOAA labs, to be inspired to do things which are creative and robust and advance the scientific frontiers for practical applications.”