UBC forecasts clearer weather picture

For those heading down to Wreck Beach this summer looking to get the perfect tan in all the places the sun doesn’t usually shine, Roland Stull has developed the perfect tool for you.

Since 1996, Stull, a professor in the Dept. of Earth and Ocean Sciences, has been using his expertise and complex computer programs to make extremely accurate, high resolution weather forecasts for British Columbia. And now, just in time for spring, Stull and his lab have found a way to digest this complex data and make the forecasts available to the public.

And for those looking for a bit of fun in the sun here at the University of British Columbia, there is a forecast available just for the Vancouver campus.

“Sometimes I use it to plan when I should go for a run, in the morning or in the evening,” says Thomas Nipen, a 3rd year PhD student in Stull’s lab, who has been helping to develop the program that spits out a two-day forecast.

“It shows a little bit more information; you can see the changes during the day. This will tell you when it will be warm and when it will be rainy.”

Stull’s weather forecasts are more accurate than the ones available from a weather channel or website, he says. To generate a forecast, Stull breaks the province up into a 3-D checkerboard; each square is 1.3 kilometers wide. These areas are smaller than the ones routinely used by Environment Canada and have very detailed information about the mountains. The result is a high-resolution forecast tailored for western Canada.

A computer runs different codes to generate forecasts for each checkerboard square. Each code, or model, gives Stull a different opinion of what the weather will be like.  All these different forecasts often get plotted onto a spaghetti diagram, a map covered in loads of thin, colourful lines. For the public to understand it all, Stull and his team summarize the results as diagrams that show the range of possible forecasts.

“We’re proud to be in British Columbia making British Columbia forecasts — it seemed a shame that the general public couldn’t benefit from them,” says Stull.

“It didn’t happen by accident though,” he says. “I kept working with my students to fine-tune the forecast diagrams. It took a lot of tweaking to get it to the point where it worked.”

The easy-to-read weather predictions were not just developed for UBC staff, students and community. Last year, Stull and undergraduate student, Dominique Bourdin, developed a program to generate 14 day forecasts for 60 different geographic locations in the province for an energy company.

Now as a master’s project, Bourdin is trying to generate easy-to-read wind predictions for these areas. The company will use this information to make decisions about wind-power development in the province.

“You have to forecast for wind power because you can’t store it. The best way to integrate wind-generated electricity is to have really high-quality forecasts,” says Bourdin.

Although Bourdin describes generating a forecast as “whipping it up,” the process required her to learn five new computer languages.

Stull and his team will continuously improve and tweak the system but overall he’s “delighted” that his forecasts are now available to everyone.

To have a look at Stull’s forecasts and work visit: http://weather.eos.ubc.ca/wxfcst/, and use the links for the “UBC 2-Day Fcst” or the “YVR 2-Week Fcst.”

UBC Reports | Vol. 56 | No. 4 | Apr. 1, 2010

Thomas Nipen, Dominique Bourdin, and Roland Stull - Photo by Martin Dee

Thomas Nipen, Dominique Bourdin, and Roland Stull - Photo by Martin Dee

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