Revealing the statistics of extreme events hidden in short weather forecast data

Published in AGU Advances, 2023

Finkel, J., E. P. Gerber, D. S. Abbot, and J. Weare, 2023: Revealing the statistics of extreme events hidden in short weather forecast data, AGU Advances, 4, e2023AV000881, doi:10.1029/2023AV000881.

Official version

Key Points

  • Extreme weather risk is inherently difficult to quantify because of data scarcity.
  • Subseasonal weather forecast ensembles are an untapped resource for computing statistics of extremes, done here by statistical weighting.
  • We characterize stratospheric extremes up to once in 500-year events from 46-day hindcast ensembles across 20 winters.

Extreme weather events have significant consequences, dominating the impact of climate on society. While high-resolution weather models can forecast many types of extreme events on synoptic timescales, long-term climatological risk assessment is an altogether different problem. A once-in-a-century event takes, on average, 100 years of simulation time to appear just once, far beyond the typical integration length of a weather forecast model. Therefore, this task is left to cheaper, but less accurate, low-resolution or statistical models. But there is untapped potential in weather model output: despite being short in duration, weather forecast ensembles are produced multiple times a week. Integrations are launched with independent perturbations, causing them to spread apart over time and broadly sample phase space. Collectively, these integrations add up to thousands of years of data. We establish methods to extract climatological information from these short weather simulations. Using ensemble hindcasts by the European Center for Medium-range Weather Forecasting (ECMWF) archived in the subseasonal-to-seasonal (S2S) database, we characterize sudden stratospheric warming (SSW) events with multi-centennial return times. Consistent results are found between alternative methods, including basic counting strategies and Markov state modeling. By carefully combining trajectories together, we obtain estimates of SSW frequencies and their seasonal distributions that are consistent with reanalysis-derived estimates for moderately rare events, but with much tighter uncertainty bounds, and which can be extended to events of unprecedented severity that have not yet been observed historically. These methods hold potential for assessing extreme events throughout the climate system, beyond this example of stratospheric extremes.