A Potential Tool for Forecasting Summer Thunderstorms in the Midwest


A certain type of storm is responsible for up to half the rainfall the Midwest receives in summer. The ability to project how these storms may respond to climate change would be a valuable tool for farmers in one of the world’s most economically important growing regions.

The problem has been that intense thunderstorms (mesoscale convective systems) have been extremely difficult to model and predict with global scale climate models. That may change, however, thanks to a new type of computer model developed at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, known as a multi-scale model that is able to simulate detailed cloud-scale processes simultaneously with large-scale dynamics. It stands to be a major improvement over previous models that had relied on statistical approximations and typically yielded unreliable results. 

A group of current and former Scripps researchers has recently publicized results revealing the success of this new breed of computer model. Scripps graduate student Gabriel Kooperman presented those results Monday at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco. 

“Now that we have a model that is able to simulate these storms, we're applying it to new climate change simulations to understand how rainfall intensity and frequency in the Central US may change in the future,” said Kooperman.

The intensity of the storms lends itself to destructive floods such as those experienced by Colorado in summer 2013, meaning the new multi-scale model might someday aid in long-term disaster planning. Researchers said that the predictive capability might benefit agriculture the most, since these storms deliver the majority of seasonal rainfall.

“Gabe is developing a potentially very important capability: being able to predict how climate change will affect rain-fed agriculture in this economically vital area in the future,” said Scripps Distinguished Professor Emeritus and Research Professor Richard Somerville, Kooperman’s advisor and a co-author of the poster. 

Somerville added that Kooperman’s continuing research “makes it seem quite likely that it will ultimately be possible to achieve this predictive capability.”

Former Scripps student Michael Pritchard, now an assistant professor of Earth System Science at UC Irvine, also contributed to the research.

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