Developing a Climate Forecast for Iowa

North Dakota flooding.

Sandbags in Fargo, N.D., spring 2010. (Photo by Scott Rowe)

In 2010, Scott Rowe spent his spring break sandbagging in Fargo, N.D., to help protect the city from floodwaters. At the time, he was an undergraduate studying atmospheric sciences at the University of North Dakota. The sandbagging effort was successful, and Rowe says he was intrigued to see how the community came together to respond to the flood threat. “It was fun. We were overfed, almost,” Rowe says, remembering the outpouring of gratitude and food for the volunteers.

He also came away with a serious interest in hydrology, which brought him to IIHR and the Iowa Flood Center for graduate studies. But Rowe has been interested in weather for a long time. He spent the first 12 years of his life in Tornado Alley. Since Texas homes rarely have basements, Rowe took shelter in the bathtub when tornado warnings were issued, sometimes with his bike helmet on for extra protection.

From then on, Rowe was fascinated by weather. He is now working on a master’s degree at IIHR under the supervision of his advisor, Gabriele Villarini. Together, they are developing a statewide climate forecast for Iowa to offer a basic idea of what precipitation can be expected in the season ahead. Their forecasts will be basic by design, Rowe explains, and limited to predicting whether precipitation will be average, above average, or below average. “It’s difficult to even make an exact precipitation forecast for 24 hours for now,” he says. Compound that over an entire season, Rowe says, and that error can become “ginormous.” With that said, depending on the success of the new system, Rowe and Villarini may attempt more quantitative statements in the future.

Rowe is analyzing Iowa’s climate data to rank the average monthly temperature and precipitation back to 1950. By correlating the atmospheric anomalies associated with the wettest and driest months, Rowe says, they’re able to use a number of existing climate models to develop a long-lead climate forecast.

Once Rowe and Villarini have a few forecasts under their belt, they’ll evaluate the accuracy by comparing their prediction to what actually happened. That information will be vital to improving the predictions, Rowe explains. “A bad forecast model is of no use to us.”

Although Rowe has no interest in broadcasting, he enjoys weather forecasting and hopes to find a job with the National Weather Service or some other forecasting agency after graduation. He may even find his way back to North Dakota, where he first got his feet wet in weather forecasting.