Forty-day Forecast


It’s the peak of summer. You’re sweltering in the throes of a miserable heatwave. You can’t find one store with air conditioners or fans left in stock to help keep you cool.

It’s the dead of winter. You’re snowed in with no relief in sight. All you want is a bottomless bowl of hot soup and for your heating bill not to bankrupt you before the spring thaw.

Extreme weather can equal extreme discomfort. It can also cause extreme uncertainty when it comes to finances. From the superstore wishing it had planned to stock more winter coats to the homeowner concerned about his or her next energy bill, guessing wrong on weather can be a bummer for business and consumer budgets alike.

But now a novel scientific method for predicting extreme hot and cold weather events created at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego is offering unprecedented foresight.

Scripps climate scientist Alexander Gershunov, along with postdoctoral researcher Kristen Guirguis, developed the new approach, which uses past weather information to predict extreme temperature and precipitation events. The method offers forecasts for regions around the world with lead times up to 40 days. Existing techniques for predicting weather don’t offer strong data beyond 15 days.

Gershunov and Guirguis’ discovery caught the attention of a group of venture capitalists working with Scripps Business Development Director Stephen Bennett to identify science with commercial potential. Under the umbrella of the Scripps Partnership for Hazards and Environmental Applied Research (SPHEAR), they developed a business plan that was awarded a $50,000 competitive grant from the San Diego CleanTECH Innovation and Commercialization Program to accelerate commercialization of the research.

The award reaffirmed the team’s instinct that a marketable business model could be born of this novel climate research. Days later, start-up company EarthRisk Technologies was spun out of Scripps.

In the university setting, there is a hard line where basic research ends and product development begins. As an external private company, EarthRisk Technologies, founded in July 2010, will work with UC San Diego’s Technology Transfer Office to take Scripps science beyond the lab and commercialize Gershunov and Guirguis’ patent-pending scientific process. The custom product EarthRisk Technologies will develop is a web-based software program that translates Gershunov and Guirguis’ complex research findings into a user-friendly platform for predicting extreme weather events.

Using this software, subscribers will be able to assess financial risks by testing how different climate scenarios might affect the probability of a severe weather event in a given region over a timescale of one to 40 days in the future. Access to this kind of information could give energy companies an edge when purchasing natural gas futures, for example, a savings that would also be realized by utility customers. The ability to better forecast weather extremes could also help marketers of weather-related products strategize when to run ad campaigns, and distributors of those products to plan ahead to stock up on inventory.

EarthRisk Techonlogies plans to release its first suite of products before the end of the year. A percentage from every product EarthRisk Technologies sells will come back to Scripps, and the company will continue to support SPHEAR and make regular contributions to fund ongoing basic research in Gershunov’s program at Scripps.

The entire model of bridging the gap between science and industry through start-up companies and commercialization is a relatively new concept for Scripps.

“With California State funding diminishing, this is a way to help that Scripps has not taken full advantage of on an institutional level before,” said Bennett.

Recalling the historical miss in not securing a patent when University of California scientist Hugh Bradner developed the first neoprene wetsuit in the 1950s, Bennett sees much to be gained from keeping a sharp eye out for Scripps discoveries with high market value.

“Will the next Google come out of Scripps?” said Bennett, “I don’t know. But I do know if you’re not focused on this stuff, you’ll miss it.”

--Shannon Casey

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