Houston optimistic that drones can improve severe weather forecasting

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Houston optimistic that drones can improve severe weather forecasting

Adam Houston speaks behind a lectern with a screen showing storm-chasing photos behind him.
Adam Houston, professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences, delivers the spring Nebraska Lecture, "Can Drones Improve Weather Forecasts?"

Adam Houston has heard the gibes about weather forecasters – what other professionals are so wrong so often and still have a job? etc. – and he’s good-natured about it. But the truth is weather forecasting has gotten pretty good, and there’s room, with technology, for it to get even better.

“It’s a trope that meteorologists unfortunately have to endure. But are we really that wrong that often?” Houston asked April 2 in opening his Nebraska Lecture, “Can Drones Improve Weather Forecasts?”

In fact, no, said Houston, professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences. Weather forecasts are quite accurate. For example, the accuracy of seven-day forecasts now is about as good as three-day forecasts were in the 1980s, and today’s three-day forecasts are accurate about 97% of the time.

However, Houston said: “The reality is forecasts aren’t always right. And sometimes when they’re wrong, they can result in death and destruction.”

Adam Houston, Nebraska Lecture, "Can Drones Improve Weather Forecasts?"
Video: Nebraska Lecture — Adam Houston, "Can Drones Improve Weather Forecasts?"

Houston’s talk focused on the forecasting of severe thunderstorms, which bring the danger of tornadoes, hail, strong winds and heavy rain. One challenge to forecasting severe thunderstorms is that the area they impact is relatively small, but the potential havoc they can create is great.

Storm forecasts ultimately are limited by several factors, one of the most important of which is atmospheric observations. Those comprise observations from the ground, weather balloons, sensors on commercial aircraft and satellites.

Where atmospheric observations are lacking is between about 500 and 1,000 meters above the Earth’s surface – what’s known as the lower atmosphere.

“Basically, we have this gap in our observations that is really huge,” Houston said. “So why does the lower atmosphere matter that much? Well, for one, it’s where we live. For another thing, the lower atmosphere is the source of thermal energy for the rest of the atmosphere.”

The lower atmosphere also is the source of water vapor for the rest of the atmosphere, and it’s highly variable.

“This gap is a blind spot for weather forecasting. So how do we fill it? Well, one possibility is drones.”

Drones already are widely used in various types of atmospheric research. Houston heads a multi-institutional research team that has experimented with drones and other technology the past three years to improve supercell and tornado forecasts. The TORUS project – Targeted Observation by Radars and UAS of Supercells – involves more than 50 scientists and students in the Great Plains.

The research shows promise. Among the practical questions is how many drones would be needed to improve nationwide, or even regional, forecasting, and would the system improve forecasting enough to justify its cost?

“What would happen if we developed a network of drones that was intentionally designed to improve weather forecasting?” Houston asked.

Research is now underway to determine the cost benefits of such a network. The Observing System Simulation Experiment allows researchers to simulate the factors in forecasting, working drones into their calculations.

Meantime, there are regulatory issues to be resolved. Current Federal Aviation Administration rules require drones to be operated within “visual lines of sight” – not practical for weather forecasting. Among the public, there are privacy and noise concerns, too. Houston notes the public is largely accepting of drones used for the public good, but they need to be aware what those drones “flying over their heads” are doing.

Despite the challenges, Houston is optimistic about drones’ future in forecasting. He said he was fortunate early in his career that officials at the National Science Foundation were “willing to invest in this crazy idea of flying drones into storms.”

“What I hope is that future scientists, future engineers will have administrators and (NSF) program managers that are willing to take those risks, because sometimes it requires a big investment of money that doesn’t go anywhere, but sometimes the technology that is developed advances science.”

The Nebraska Lectures: The Chancellor’s Distinguished Speaker Series is offered twice a year and features high-profile presentations by distinguished Husker faculty who address topics of broad interest in an engaging, accessible format.

The lecture series is sponsored by the Research Council, Office of the Chancellor, Office of Research and Economic Development and Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. 

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