Record Winter Warmth Is Raising Pressure on Forecasters

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Record winter warmth around the globe has raised pressure on weather forecasters from utilities and financial markets that depend on models to work out the economic impact of climate change. 

Abnormally high temperatures led to billions of dollars of lost revenue for energy producers, which have curtailed fuel supplies because everyone from homeowners to heavy industry didn’t need as much heat as usual. Europe was particularly affected with temperatures some 3.4 degrees Celsius (6.1 degrees Fahrenheit) above normal. Those extreme variations are sharpening the focus on the systems meteorologists use to predict seasonal patterns weeks or even months in the future.

“Our work is becoming more and more relevant,” said Alberto Troccoli, who heads the World Energy and Meterology Council and is developing new forecasting tools with companies including Enel SpA and the National Grid Plc in the U.K. “Demand has always been driven by climate, but there’s even more scope now to examine how production is impacted by climate change.”

This year’s unprecedented winter heat was capped last month by the second warmest February on record both in Europe and globally, according to the Copernicus Climate Change Service. The European Union program uses billions of measurements from satellites, ships, aircraft and weather stations around the world for its monthly and seasonal forecasts and found that the current winter is the warmest on record. 

“This was a truly extreme event in its own right,” Copernicus Director Carlo Buontempo said in an emailed statement. “Now more than ever, the role of Copernicus is becoming more important” as “these sorts of events have been made more extreme by global warming.”

Copernicus seasonal weather models performed pretty well heading into this winter. Utilities and power producers checking the outlook in November would have seen there was a 70% chance of higher-than-normal temperatures in northern Europe and a 90% probability around the Mediterranean basin. 

Other forecasters saw it differently, expecting that cold air from the Arctic would flow down into Europe as it usually does. Both AccuWeather Inc. in Pennsylvania and Maxar, a Maryland-based commercial forecaster, predicted this year’s winter would be colder than the last one, suggesting that U.S. heating costs would likely be elevated.

“Our models are not perfect but they give you a good indication,” said Troccoli, who runs the Copernicus energy operational service the provides tools to analyse the role that climate plays in energy supply and demand. The seasonal weather model run by Copernicus has been refined over three decades to ensure accuracy to “a pretty good extent,” he said. 

Troccoli is an Italian scientist who published “Weather & Climate Services for the Energy Industry” last year. Now, he’s mapping new data sets to show how monthly changes in atmospheric pressure systems impact economic activity. 

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