Seasonal forecasts are becoming increasingly relevant as the weather is getting more extreme. Early indications of how the weather will be long into the future increases the ability to prepare for different scenarios. One way to distribute the forecasts to the people who need them is through Regional Climate Outlook Forums, and recently the first Norwegian one took place, arranged by Climate Futures.
Climate Futures is a centre for research-driven innovation that focuses on using climate prediction when planning weather and climate-sensitive activities. They work with close to 40 partners to co-develop methods and practices for climate risk management, and their goal is to establish long-term cooperation across sectors. Climate Futures is divided into four main focus areas, or “nodes”: Sustainable Food Production, Smart Shipping, Resilient Societies and Renewable Energy. Earlier this summer, Climate Futures arranged a pilot conference inspired by the Greater Horn of Africa Climate Outlook Forum (GHACOF). One of Climate Futures’ tasks is to create seasonal forecasts, and a “NORCOF” (Norwegian Climate Outlook Forum) can be an arena to present these to relevant stakeholders.
Regional Climate Outlook Forums
Regional Climate Outlook Forums have been arranged since the late 1990s. They present a great opportunity for networking between nations within a specific region, and nations and stakeholders get a chance to exchange valuable information among themselves. The GHACOF takes place three times a year where the forecast for the following months is presented to participants from 11 countries in the region. The goal is to present the forecast for the following four months, present implications of the climate forecast and response strategies, provide a regional interaction platform for decision-makers, scientists, users of climate information and development partners, and finally, release the forum statement.
Because of the pandemic, the forum is held virtually but still manages to bring together climate scientists, researchers, users from key socio-economic sectors, governmental and non-governmental organizations, development partners, decision-makers, and civil society stakeholders among others. CONFER has participated in several of the GHACOF’s already, and we are looking forward to the next one in a couple of months. The GHACOF is also preceded by an online capacity building and climate prediction development workshop for climate experts from the participating National Meteorological and Hydrological Services. The GHACOF has had great success (Walker et al. 2019), one example being a bumper harvest in 2009. Based on the forecast from the GHACOF, Kenya Red Cross was able to hand out seeds to farmers, expanding their storage of grain (Graham et al. 2012). This is an excellent example of how the GHACOF is meant to work.
All the nodes from Climate Futures were invited to the NORCOF, but the one that was meant to act as a pilot was Sustainable Food Production. Therefore, the stakeholders “belonging” to this node, mainly in the agricultural sector, were also present. The program was as follows:
- Erik Kolstad presented the seasonal forecast for July 2021
- All stakeholders from the Food Production node stayed for a discussion on how the forecast will affect their sector. The other groups were also welcome to stay and share their input on the forecast, but the topic was Food Production.
The discussion in the pilot group mostly revolved around how they understood the forecast, and whether this kind of seasonal forecast is useful in their sector with the variables presented by Kolstad. Given that the summer of 2018 was extremely warm and dry in Norway, some of the examples in the forecast was seen in relation to 2018. Naturally, measures taken in the sector was also a part of the conversation in the breakout group. Going from a pilot to a full-scale conference, the goal is for the discussion to be even more concretely focused on what the forecast will mean for their sector, as well as possible measures to prepare for the forecasted conditions.
There are a few things to bear in mind when presenting, or when being presented with, a seasonal forecast. The first thing is that due to the forecast’s length, and therefore also the uncertainty, a seasonal forecast does not tell you what the weather will be like on a specific day, let alone a specific time of day. Instead, you are presented with probabilities and statistics where data from several different models are compared with a climatological “normal”. Normal in this sense is based on the historical statistics gathered from previous years. Furthermore, scientists interpret the likelihood that the following season will be wetter, drier, or pretty much the same as normal.
The forecast above presents us with a statistical percentage of how likely it is that the season or month will be either wetter, drier (or colder/warmer, but in the example above, we are talking about the probability that July 2021 will be drier than July 2018), or the same as the normal. Theoretically, there should be a 33% chance for each of the three alternatives.
Because we know that the earth is, in fact, getting gradually warmer, the probability of the conditions being “warmer than normal” is slightly higher, while the other two (colder or normal conditions) are slightly lower than 33% (See figure below and note the crocodile signs). Consequently, the data needs to be correspondingly higher than 33%, so if the model for example tells us that there is a 34% chance that July 2021 will be warmer than July 2020, this is to be expected, and therefore these numbers will not be interpreted as “warmer than normal” because normal is continuously changing towards a warmer climate. However, if there is a 67% probability that July 2021 will be warmer than July 2020, this will be considered warmer than normal.
Why does this matter?
The past year has been full of extreme weather events, from numerous forest fires to devastating floods. Predictions about what a season will be like compared to earlier years can be especially useful to prepare for these kinds of extreme events. Seasonal forecasts will thus enable people to prepare long in advance and consequently be better equipped to handle them.
Predicting extreme conditions might seem like an obvious reason for producing seasonal forecasts. Less so is the fact that in many sectors, it is equally important to know if they should expect normal conditions. This is the case for the agricultural sector who will find it useful to know whether they can expect to harvest their crops at the same time as last year or earlier due to suboptimal conditions. Thus, it is better to have an indication from an uncertain forecast so you can plan for possible measures to prepare for unusual conditions rather than to wait and see how it turns out and hope for the best.
Finally, providing updated forecasts as we go along is of great importance. Climate scientists run the models regularly. Even though early forecasts indicate that July will be about as dry as normal, a week later, the models might tell a different story, and July is expected to be drier than normal. Because the uncertainty in the forecasts increases further into the future, these updates are an important part of providing useful long-term forecasts. Checking if the models provide new information, and continuously updating the forecast as the forecasted period gets closer, is crucial for the forecast to be helpful to the people using the service. That way, when you get early indications of how the season will turn out, you can prepare and work out measures that are well thought through. As the season approaches, you can check the updated forecast and consider whether you need to implement them or not. Climate Futures provides two types of long-term forecasts: monthly and seasonal, which are updated regularly.
NORCOF in the future
The first NORCOF was quite successful, and Climate Futures is planning to arrange the next one on 18 August 2021. This one being a pilot mainly focused on the Food Production node, the next NORCOF will likely differ a bit. The idea is for all the nodes to break out into groups and discuss how the forecast presented will affect their sector. Each of the node leaders will steer the discussion in their node, and each of them will present possible measures for preparing for the presented forecast. In order for all the members of the centre to learn from the discussion in the other nodes, there will be a plenary discussion at the end where all the groups present their findings.