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We’re Getting Way Better at Forecasting Storms, and It’s Helping Humanitarian Groups

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This story was originally published by Grist and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. 

In an era of increasingly extreme hurricanes, floods, and drought, the people in charge of preparing for disasters depend on meteorologists to anticipate where the next catastrophe might strike. Here’s some good news: Meteorologists are coming through, with unprecedented accuracy.

In fact, weather forecasting technology has improved so dramatically that humanitarian organizations can now fund disaster relief before disaster hits. It’s a revolutionary change that could save countless lives.

Earlier this month, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies launched the first “forecast-based financing” fund, aiming at using weather predictions to anticipate potential humanitarian crises and thereby giving organizations like the Red Cross a chance at stopping them before they begin.

“We think this is a game-changer, not only for the Red Cross and Red Crescent, but for humanitarian action as a whole,” said Pascale Meige, who runs the program for the Red Cross, in a statement. The program has been in the works for years, but is now available to anyone the Red Cross and Red Crescent serves, anywhere in the world.

Forecast-based financing programs wouldn’t be possible without giant leaps in accuracy. Just last week, the National Hurricane Center announced that the horrific hurricane season of 2017 was also its best forecast season to date. A hurricane forecast looking out five days is now as precise as a three-day forecast a decade ago—that’s two extra days for people in harm’s way to make preparations.

Overseas, progress has been even more rapid. In remote places where humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross do much of their work, the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting, or ECMWF, often provides the best forecasts.

For decades, basic predictions of temperature and air pressure by the ECMWF have progressed steadily, with highly accurate outlooks now possible more than six days in advance, compared to about four days in 1981. Rainfall prediction, which is much more challenging, has progressed even faster, with similar accuracy increases in half the time.

And dramatic progress is ongoing. According to Alexander MacDonald, who focuses on computer-based weather forecasting for the National Weather Service: “We’re building future models and seeing some spectacular results.”

Computers get much of the credit for the tremendous advances in weather forecasting. Since the advent of computer-based weather prediction in the 1950s, the National Weather Service’s computer capacity has increased by a factor of 100 billion. Some of the world’s fastest


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