Tackling the challenge of weather prediction from days to weeks ahead

The Waves-to-Weather (W2W) project team addresses the great challenge of identifying the limits of weather predictability and producing the best physically possible forecasts.

Established in July 2015, Waves to Weather (W2W) trans-regional collaborative research project brings together researchers from seven German research organizations to address the challenge of identifying the limits of weather predictability and producing the best physically possible forecasts. The first phase of the project ran from 2015-2019. Currently, the project is in the second phase (2019- 2023) of the expected three phases. Within this phase, the project explores three interconnected research themes, i.e. growth of errors in forecasts, the role of cloud processes in forecast uncertainties and the probabilistic prediction of high impact weather for societal applications.

George Craig, Meteorological Institute Munich, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany

My job title in Waves to Weather is “Speaker”, which emphasizes that I’m not a leader, but rather a coordinator who listens to all the members of the project and tries to sum up our contributions to science. I am originally from Canada and studied at the University of Toronto. I spent 12 years in the UK at the University of Reading, then moved to Germany, first at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) and then at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Unversität (LMU) in Munich. My research interests have always focused on the study of weather systems, like cumulus convection, using mathematical analysis, numerical modeling as well as field campaigns like NAWDEX (http://www.pa.op.dlr.de/nawdex/). Doing all this at the same time might not be a clever way to structure a career, but it is fun.

Corinna Hoose, Institute of Meteorology and Climate Research, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Karlsruhe, Germany

As the spokesperson of the Equal Opportunities Committee of W2W, it is my task to keep an eye on the various dimensions of diversity that are taken into account in the management decisions in W2W, as well as to support women and parents in pursuing their scientific careers. In addition, I am also PI and Co-PI of three sub-projects within W2W, all focussing on the role of clouds in atmospheric prediction. I am a Professor of Theoretical Meteorology at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology – incidentally, this is also where I studied (physics) until my Diploma and discovered my love for clouds and cloud microphysics. After that, I started my research career by studying clouds in climate models, first as a doctoral researcher at ETH Zurich in Switzerland and later as a postdoc in Oslo, Norway. Today, with my research group at KIT, we are focusing on higher resolutions and shorter timescales than in climate models. But my motivation is still the same: trying to understand how clouds work and how they impact their surroundings.

Robert Redl, Faculty of Physics, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany

In W2W, I’m contributing to the central IT infrastructure and support projects. My job is to make sure that technical problems don’t get in the way of scientists and especially the Early Career Researchers (ECRs). Furthermore, it is also a goal to push the boundaries of what is technically feasible. I grew up in northern Germany and studied meteorology at the University of Cologne, where I also did my PhD. During my time in Cologne, I was involved in field campaigns as well as in modeling studies focused on the West African Monsoon. Both in the field and on the computer, technical details have always been what I enjoyed the most. Consequently, I applied at LMU as a scientific programmer for W2W and worked in this position over the last five years. During this time, I already worked a lot with the IT group of the Faculty of Physics. Recently, I became the leader of this group, which gives me even more opportunities to combine my interests in science and technology.

Kirsten Tempest, Meteorological Institute Munich, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany

In Autumn 2019, I began my PhD in a W2W project at the LMU. Before joining W2W, I completed an undergraduate in Physics with Astrophysics at the University of Glasgow and an MSc in Physics, with a concentration in Atmospheric Physics, at the University of Toronto. Working with George Craig as my main supervisor, I am using an idealised model that replicates convection to create massive ensembles (~100,000 members) which will be used to assess sampling uncertainties in forecast variables. This year I am also leading the ECR committee within W2W with two of my colleagues. As an ECR leader, I co-organise various activities and ensure good communication between the ECRs and experienced researchers within W2W and beyond.

What are the major scientific and societal questions this project addresses? 

George: We’re interested in the predictability of the weather. Most people know that weather is chaotic – no matter how hard we try, we will never be able to make perfect weather forecasts. But so far, we don’t seem to have hit the limit. With better observations and better numerical prediction systems, we keep improving the forecasts. So what is the limit? We are trying to understand this in three ways under the Waves to Weather project. 

Firstly, we are exploring how the famous butterfly effect works in the real world – how small errors in a forecast grow in size. Secondly, we are trying to understand how much our lack of detailed knowledge of atmospheric processes, such as clouds, limits our ability to forecast. And thirdly, we are studying how different waves and weather systems operating at different time scales combine to make high-impact weather.

What are the project achievements so far? Can you share a specific highlight? 

George: Wow, it’s hard to pick just one! Something that really changed the way I think about the atmosphere is some new results from Michael Riemer’s group in Mainz. Like many others, I used to think that in order to understand error growth in a forecast, I should look for instabilities. For instance, looking for the north-south temperature gradient that gives the energy source for fronts and cyclones over Europe. But in fact, the main mechanism for error growth for this case is how things move at the jet stream level. A slight shift in the location of the weather pattern can create large errors in the forecast – this fact has really opened my eyes. The physical mechanisms that amplify the errors may be completely different from the processes that make the weather system in the first place!

What opportunities does this project offer for early career researchers? 

Kirsten: The working environment of W2W has a positive impact on the scientific growth of the ECRs. This is due in part to its size, the excellence of scientific research and the expertise and mentoring of principal investigators.

There is a dedicated committee of ECRs within W2W that organizes workshops to develop scientific and soft skills, and therefore aids the personal growth of the ECRs as scientists. Recently a workshop was organised that featured sessions on research tools and concepts ( e.g. ensemble sensitivity analysis, causation and correlation) that are relevant to many W2W projects. There are also opportunities for the ECRs to visit other countries and organizations and therefore W2W helps ECRs to form new collaborations outside their own research group. 

A sense of community among the ECRs within W2W exists, that aids in building collaborations across the W2W projects, and finding support and encouragement, especially in times of covid pandemic. There are several capacity building and social activities that are organised to maintain this community, e.g. annual meetings focussed on the ECRs, language exchange program, game evenings and a writing club (where this interview snippet itself was reviewed).

Are the project outcomes (e.g. published papers, data) available as open-resource? 

Robert: When most people think of project outcomes, they first think of scientific publications. In that respect, we are no different and we can say that apart from very few exceptions, open access has become the standard for all publications in W2W. While it has not been the standard in the first phase of the project, our internal data management plan now includes publishing program codes used in the publications as an open resource. 

In addition to code related to individual publications, W2W projects have also produced open-source software, such as Met.3D visualization software, developed by Marc Rautenhaus and colleagues. We also plan to publish future software developed under the W2W project as open-resource to enable scientists outside the W2W to apply and maybe enhance the tools developed by W2W.

What do you expect from an early-career researcher contributing to your project? E.g. What skills do you look for in a candidate for this project?

George: Everybody is different, and there are many ways to be a good scientist, so I don’t have a checklist that I try to measure everyone against. In general, we want people to get things done, so we look at what people have done already, for example in their Master’s thesis. This could be mathematical, computer modeling or measurements, as long as it involves working on a research problem for a significant period of time and overcoming the challenges related to that research problem.

Another important characteristic is wide curiosity. We are a big, multi-disciplinary project, but you won’t get any benefit from that if you don’t make an effort to understand what others are doing.

Finally, I put a lot of value in a scientist’s ability to communicate what they are doing – not because it’s an important life skill (although it is!), but because clear explanations are evidence of clear thinking.

Is equity, diversity and gender balance taken into account when selecting participants for this project?

Corinna: The selection criteria for ECRs and PIs of W2W is merit-based, but we take into account each institution’s policy on providing equal opportunities and diversity. At W2W, we aspire to foster a welcoming and open environment for everyone. 

For the second funding phase of the project, excellent female Master’s and PhD students with an interest in research were approached by the W2W leadership team and encouraged to pursue research under the W2W project. Some of them actively participated in the writing process of the W2W funding proposal, shaping their research projects. This has led to an increase in the proportion of female and international ECRs from the first to the second funding phase. The equal opportunity committee and the scientific manager of W2W supports researchers facing the challenges of combining family life with a scientific career, e.g. by organising childcare during W2W meetings or by sponsoring home office equipment. Furthermore, W2W offers coaching and mentoring on several topics including time management, career development, presentation, voice training etc. In addition, they also raise awareness of the need for equal opportunities for people with all gender identities, and of the appreciation of diversity. 

In these times of competition and uncertain career prospects, if there is one piece of career advice that you can give to the ECRs, what would that be?

George: If there was one piece of advice I would give in the face of all the career uncertainty nowadays, it would be “Don’t live in the future”. That sounds a bit crazy – of course, everyone needs to think about their career goals and what steps they need to get there. But even more important is to know what you like about the work you are doing now. Is it the feeling that you are understanding the world around you? Is it the collaboration with enthusiastic colleagues? The feeling that you are making the world a better place? Be honest – is it people admiring how clever you are? It’s impossible to predict what kind of job anyone will have 10 or 20 years from now, but if you know what makes you happy, there are many career options where you can find it.

The participants were interviewed by Shipra Jain (YESS ExeCom member). The article is edited for length and clarity by the YESS Interviews Team.