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Here’s How European Satellites Can Help Predict the Next Weather Disaster

2021-01-19 13:06:57
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Spain kicked off the new year with the fight against Storm Filomena, a one-off weather event that snowed over Madrid and paralyzed the economy. Health workers were stranded, supermarkets closed and the army was called in. At least four people died.

"Now think of a government or company that knew two weeks ago that there was a risk of this happening," said Francisco Doblas-Reyes, a physicist at Barcelona's Supercomputing Center. "Knowing that there would be a risk of a 1-in-20 year happening would have provided more opportunities to prepare."

Doblas-Reyes and his team are working on complex models that they hope will be able to better detect the next Filomena, a task of increasing importance as climate change makes the weather more unpredictable and extreme. The data collected by European satellites is at the heart of the continent's Billion Euro Destination Earth program that aims to develop the best digital simulation of the Earth in the world.

"We have the gold standard of satellite infrastructure in space," said Josef Aschbacher, the geophysicist who will become Director General of the European Space Agency this year. The European Space Agency has 16 Earth observation satellites in orbit, of which about three dozen are in development, and Aschbacher says it is in talks with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration to take even greater responsibility for climate monitoring in the next decade.

While US climate research has lagged behind manned spaceflight, deep space exploration and the creation of a military force for space during the Trump administration, European scientists have focused on finding new ways to mitigate the changing atmosphere. understand. In November, the EU launched a satellite aboard a NASA-backed Space X rocket that can track miniscule changes in sea level to the nearest millimeter. New projects are underway to monitor freshwater flows and greenhouse gas emissions, technical challenges akin to predicting how a drop of ink will spread in a choppy pond.

By using artificial intelligence and supercomputers, Aschbacher says the first digital twin simulations of the Earth could be ready by 2028. ESA's data is public, allowing everyone from scientists in Barcelona to farmers and insurers to improve their own models at the same time. "If you want to make it really useful, you have to make sure that the information is available in a way that people can use it visually," he said. "What people really want to know is not just the status of today, but a projection of the future."

Sentinel-6 updates maps of the oceans covering 70% of the planet every 10 days. Credit: European Space Agency

American researchers running their own Earth system simulations – an idea first conceived by Vice President Al Gore in the 1990s – say the EU did took charge in stimulating climate model resolutions. With the new tools, researchers can zoom in on changing patterns within a kilometer area, while that is now about 10 square kilometers. This should give scientists new insight into phenomena such as cloud formation and how ocean eddies transport heat.

The new climate models also have the potential to help investors make better decisions. Storms, fires and floods have killed at least 8,200 people and cost the world $ 210 billion in insured losses by 2020, according to a report published this month by Munich Re. That damage could increase as the world gets an inch closer to crossing the warming threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius, which scientists say will lead to more frequent superstorms and higher sea levels.

"There is a lot of information out there, but too much information is also bad," Robert Holzmann, member of the Board of Directors of the European Central Bank, said in an interview in November. “You cannot get the right signals from it. The information should be reduced to a handful or two of the criteria that are the most critical. "

To solve that problem, European scientists are working on a series of easy-to-read climate indices that follow EU documents. They partner with traders and weather analysts from European utility companies, including Electricite de France, EDP Renovaveis SA and Vattenfall AB, to develop such tools – with varying degrees of success.

“Meteorologists at EnBW rely on the scientific and statistical methods on which the tool is based,” said Michael Christoph, a weather analyst at the German energy company Energie Baden-Wuerttemberg AG. "However, it will take time to build the same trust among energy traders."

Monthly seasonal forecasts of temperature, precipitation and atmospheric pressure need to become more accurate. Credit: Copernicus Climate Change Service

Currently, seasonal weather models published by the ESA Climate Service are not always suitable to support longer-term investment decisions, as they are not calibrated to accommodate events like Storm Filomena and only generate broad probabilistic forecasts. But that could change in the coming years, as $ 8 billion is being poured into a new generation of supercomputers that can calculate billions of equations every second, according to Doblas-Reyes.

“There is a continuum of information that these companies need, information ranging from the next hour to the next day to the next few weeks,” he said. "We need to help the government prepare and businesses to take advantage of these events."

Copyright 2021 Bloomberg.

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