Did scientists just figure out a way to predict a heat wave 2 months in advance?

Weather conditions and recreation are like peanut butter and jelly. Anyone who thrives in the outdoors probably has a half dozen apps on his or her phone specifically for forecasting weather conditions.

Of course, there are the basic apps like Wunderground, and then there are those specifically tailored for particular pursuits: Windguru for kiters, Surfline for waveriders, Fishtrack for anglers, Buoyweather for boaters, or Ski & Snow Report for the mountain lovers.

Sometimes we’re getting real time information about the wind on a stretch of coast or thunderstorms forming to our north. But, one thing is certain, we plan our trips according to the forecast. Should we make a tactical strike for a Caribbean swell? Will that low dump more in the Wasach or Sierra Madre?

Now, it’s possible that scientists just discovered a way to predict heat waves for the East Coast and heartland up to 50 days in advance. Yes, 50 days.

Heatwaves tend to drive folks to the coast in record numbers, which is great for beach town economies. Photo: Courtesy of Stefan Georgi/Flickr.

Long range weather forecasting has always been a mix of science and folklore. The Old Farmer’s Almanac claims to derive its long-term forecasts from a “secret formula” that was devised by the founder of this Almanac, Robert B. Thomas, in 1792.

Thomas believed that weather was influenced by magnetic storms on the surface of the sun. Notes about that formula are locked in a black box in the publication’s offices in Dublin, New Hampshire. Yes, they’ve updated their game by incorporating more modern science, but they stick by that bit about Robert Thomas and the black box.

Meanwhile, agencies and academic programs use every state-of-the-art tool to try to predict weather, not only more accurately, but further in advance. A good example is NOAA, The Weather Channel, the National Hurricane Center and the University of Colorado forecasting how active a hurricane season will be.

A research paper released recently on Nature Geoscience by a postdoctoral researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in Boulder, shows how ocean temperatures in the North Pacific are related to future heatwaves for the Plains and East Coast.

K.A. McKinnon has found that when certain ocean temperatures are in place (known as the Pacific Extreme Pattern off the Pacific Coast of the US) they can lead to dramatic heatwave events later in the season for much of the nation.

By observing Pacific sea surface temps, scientists may be able to predict heatwaves for the East Coast and heartland. Image: NOAA.
By observing Pacific sea surface temps, scientists may be able to predict heatwaves for the East Coast and heartland. Image: Courtesy of NOAA.

Noted Wunderground meteorologist and founder, Dr. Jeff Master focused on the paper in a recent blog post writing, “Clearly, the PEP (Pacific Extreme Pattern) is not a perfect predictor, but it may serve as a useful new avenue toward probabilistic heat and drought forecasts over a key part of the U.S., with more specific timing than now offered by today’s leading techniques.”

He gave McKinnon’s team due credit for their work correlating sea surface temps in May of 2012 to the blistering heat that much of the country experienced that July.

McKinnon’s main focus is preparedness, just like a blizzard or landfalling hurricane, residents and cities can deal better with extremes if they know what to expect.

But accurate forecasts could have a serious effect on the way we recreate, hence an effect on the places where we surf, snowboard, hike, fish, sail, etc. Ever camped in a heatwave?

Different tourism markets around the country have already noted the way forecasts affect business. Surely, the weatherman predicting a gloomy weekend has kept folks from heading to the coast or the mountains in the past. No one drove up to ski or ride New England last winter because they knew there was no snow and local businesses felt it.

In recent years, places like the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where tourism is the lifeline of the economy, have noted that more accurate surf and fishing reports, and forecasts can actually hamper revenue. There was a time that a family would head down to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore for a weekend to fish or surf, without knowing exactly what was in store.

Today, a forecasted flat surf report or a forecast that the fish aren’t biting may cause travelers to stay home instead of taking a chance on the conditions and spending a few bucks in the process. On the other hand, a hurricane swell is a two-day boom for business.

New Yorkers know how to deal with a heatwave. Photo: Guillaume David/Flickr.
New Yorkers know how to deal with a heatwave. Photo: Courtesy of Guillaume David/Flickr

It’s very possible that backpackers might choose to cancel a summer trip to their favorite trails because of an impending heatwave predicted a month or so away. They might opt for a spot with cooler climates, or decide to spend that week at the coast instead. Although, a forecast for pleasant summer weather could have pockets of the country see increased pre-booked accommodations.

However the coin may fall, it looks like travelers and outdoor enthusiasts may be very well-informed bout the weather conditions during their trip that’s still months away.

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