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April 3, 2019

Why meteorologists still are relevant

Supercomputer vs. meteorologist
Summary
Experienced meteorologists are adding a large value to the forecasts.

Although the computers are constantly becoming more powerful, the weather's chaotic nature still makes the meteorological profession relevant. In many situations an experienced meteorologist will add a large value to the forecast.

Are meteorologists still relevant?

Meteorologist have since the introduction of supercomputers in the 60´s been told that they will be replaced in a foreseeable future. However, although the computers are continuously getting more powerful, resulting in more accurate weather forecasts, the number of meteorologists has not decreased significantly. This is partly due to the need for professionals presenting and explaining the weather forecasts, but mainly due to the value that meteorologists still add to the computer-generated forecasts.

By learning how different models perform in different situations, what parameters the models have most problems with and combine this with real-time observation data, a meteorologist can outshine the supercomputers. In some situations, the meteorologist can only contribute with minor corrections, like wind and temperature over large water areas or a uniform landmass with no significant topography. But in other situations and with other parameters, the weather models are still struggling.
Below are a few examples:

Thunderstorms

The models usually can predict situations for when showers will develop, and also in some degree the shower intensity. However, the exact track of the showers/thunderstorms and if there will be lightning as well are rather difficult for the models to predict. 
By looking at radar and satellite animations and by the flow in different heights above the surface, a trained meteorologist can determine the movement and the risk of thunderstorms.
Observations of the vertical temperature distribution (showing how unstable the atmosphere is), are also widely used in order to determine the risk of lightning.

Thunderstorm
A thunderstorm over sea.
 
Fog

There are several types of fog (categorized after formation), but they all have one thing in common: The weather models have great difficulty in predicting the formation and especially the extent of the fog. Small variations in humidity and wind speed can have a big influence on the formation/disappearance of fog. The meteorologist will, among other things, look at observations of temperature, dewpoint temperature, winds and satellite images to determine the risk of fog.

Fog in harbour
Fog in a German harbour.
 
Local weather phenomena

Due to the limited resolution of weather models, some local weather phenomena will not be predicted. However, a meteorologist can by using his/her experience and looking at the general weather development, usually predict these events.

Low clouds
Local cloud formation over Faroe Islands.
 
Cyclone tracks

Certain low-pressure tracks are more difficult for the models to predict than others. The meteorologist will not be able to predict the exact track but can by looking at different models and ensemble forecasts present the uncertainties and the most likely track.

Cyclone tracks over Europe
The main cyclone tracks over Europe according to Van Bebber.  (Image: Wikipedia)
 
Type of precipitation

The type of precipitation depends on the temperature, both at the surface and higher up in the atmosphere - and the atmospheric pressure. By looking at the vertical temperature observations and the general flow, the meteorologist can often predict if there will be wintry precipitation or hazardous phenomena as freezing rain.

Winter conditions
Winter conditions…

 

Besides of the observations and the weather parameters at the surface, the meteorologist often looks at the upper air flow and temperatures in different weather forecasts. As the air higher up in the atmosphere is not disturbed by the surface, these forecasts are more reliable and help the meteorologist to get a good picture of the overall weather situation and the type of air mass. The type of air mass (warm, cold, dry, humid) is important in order to predict the local weather correct, and to spot situations when the weather models are performing poorly.
As an example, we can again have a short look on thunderstorms: In warm and moist air, heavy thunderstorms may form during the day, but the formation and position of these thunderstorms is often poorly predicted in the models. If you are engaged in a lightning sensitive operation, the meteorologist will often be of great help in these situations – and can ultimately save lives.

Meteorologist are typically specialized in a sector like aviation, marine/offshore or energy. As the different sectors have different needs, the meteorologist will gain experience regarding both the meteorology and the need of the customers. By combining this, the meteorologist will be a specialist that will be an asset for the society and customers for a long time ahead.