IN a popularity contest among the farming community, weather forecasters rate somewhere between journalists and used car salesmen.
Those delivering our weather outlook are frequently pilloried for not being able to forecast a weather event just hours out.
But one Nuffield Scholar has said the hard facts show weather forecasting has made a quantum leap in terms of accuracy.
Robin Schaefer, from Loxton in South Australia, is part of the ‘Bulla Burra’ collaborative farming enterprise.
“It’s frustrating to see the messenger continually get shot, it is an area we’ve seen some huge improvements in,” he said.
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Weather forecasting was an area he’s been interested in since he was a kid, but a recent run of dry seasons brought that interest to the fore.
“The last 12 years have been pretty tough at home – seven or eight years of those have been in the lowest 20 years of 100 years of rainfall records, so it really got me interested in longer term forecasting,” he explains.
And he said his research showed good advances were being made in forecasting.
“Our 10 day forecast is now as accurate as the seven day one once was.”
As part of his study tour, Mr Schaefer focused on extreme weather forecasting in Oklahoma in the United States, a state with a climate ranging from tornadoes, to snowstorms where the temperature can drop to minus 30 degrees, to heatwaves of 30-40 degrees Celsius.
“They’ve developed a grid system with 37 kilometre-spaced real time weather observation stations, including soil moisture probes, to get a real handle on what’s happening with the weather – it was just fascinating.”
He then travelled to the La Pampa region in Argentina, another area with a variable climate in which rainfall can vary by 60 per cent, or 400 to 1000mm, from one year to the next.
Along with this, Robin said he was also interested in potential new forecasting techniques.
In New Zealand he visited weather forecaster Ken Ring, who Robin found uses less-than-mainstream techniques.
“Ken was really interesting, he spent a lot of time living near the beach and came to the realisation that weather was affected a lot by what was happening with the moon and the sun and so he’s done research along those lines.
“A lot of people discount this type of forecasting but in my journey I’ve actually found some real correlations there,” he says.
From all his travels and discussions, Robin came to some very clear conclusions about how farmers can use long-term weather forecasting to help their businesses.
“If you understand what goes on behind forecasts and how you use them in your business, you can weigh up the risk and apportion your inputs appropriately to the forecast – this allows farmers to manage risk, not increase it.
“I also think it’s important to get forecasts from a number of sources too – while private weather forecasters I’ve seen tend to be more at the cutting edge, farmers should not just rely on one,” he said.
Farmers also needed to take weather forecasts in context.
“When they say there is a chance of rain, there is still the scope for it not to rain, we need to be careful not to read things into the weather report just because it is what we want to hear.
“It’s all probability based and there are still times when it is wrong, which is always going to happen, as weather is such an incredibly complex set of factors.
“It was interesting to see some of the models have deliberately got errors in them so they can simulate the randomness of nature.”
Mr Schaefer said he was pleased to see models working on smaller and smaller grids.
“You can get much better local information than you used to.
He said it was important to have that local input.
“During my study, there was lots of fascinating studies about the impact small chances in topography can have on the weather.
“Even a green crop in a dry area can influence the amount of rain on a local level.
“There was one study that found a recently cut corn crop, with its stems still leaking moisture can create a temperature gradient which can then get convection and produce rain.”
Mr Schaefer said down the track more climatic events would be recognised by forecasters.
“All we hear about here in Australia is El Niño and a little bit about the Indian Ocean Dipole, but a forecaster told me he knew of 27 different factors out there.
“They might not have as big an impact as El Niño, but they still will influence things.”
While Mr Schaefer said he was pleased with the quality of information delivered by forecasters, he said there was room for improvement in the delivery.
“These guys are mathematicians and sometimes I think the info could be presented in a more user friendly manner.”