Long-range weather forecasting may soon be accurate enough to help mitigate some of the hunger and human tragedy that seems likely as a result of the ever-tightening squeeze between world supply and demand for food.
Many uncertainties remain in the art of forecasting weather a year or more in advance. Still, practitioners of this embryonic science attending a symposium on the subject here in Boulder sponsored by the Aspen Institute appeared optimistic. Their predictions of temperature, rainfall, and other factors of importance to agriculture may soon be good enough to help nations and individual farmers to better manage their food production and distribution, those at the meeting said.
"Although it cannot do anything about the general trend [of decreasing world food reserved], seasonal forecasting may be able to help even-out the short-term , climate-induced fluctuations that have already caused millions of . . . deaths ," explains Stephen H. Schneider, a climatologist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), who has put considerable study into the links between climate and food supply.
The belief that seasonal forecasts can have a positive effect on the world food situation is challenged by Derek Winstanley, an English social scientist in NCAR's Advanced Study Program. "I don't see seasonal forecasting as a major factor in solving the world's food problems," Dr. Winstanley says.
The climate has been blamed incorrectly as the cause of a number of food crises, he argues. There has been hunger in places like the African Sahel, not because there was no food in the world to feed them but because they could not pay its price or because the distribution system broke down, he points out.
One of the "fearless" and therefore controversial pioneers in the area of seasonal forecasting is Reid Bryson of the University of Wisconsin. For several years now he has been working on an "objective, quantitative" method for making one- and two-year forecasts of temperature and precipitation in various parts of the world. His approach is to develop statistical associations between weather patterns and basic climatic factors such as the average transparency of the atmosphere, lunar tidal effects, and the Earth's wobble on its axis.
out of 8,000 forecasts "we're not always right, but we're better than chance, " Dr. Bryson says. "We are right two times out of three on precipitation and on temperature," he adds. This score pertains to whether temperature and rainfall in a given month are above or below normal. If the accuracy of Dr. Bryson's forecasts holds up to independent scrutiny, he has the best record thus far, other experts in the field say.
Still "I'm not sure how much value forecasts of this sort are," the scientist admits.
In their current form they are not very useful, confirms James D. McQuigg, a private crop forecaster. Still, he says he believes seasonal forecasts can be made in a way that will be helpful.
Not only is the farmer of today interested in the rain that falls on his own crops, but also on the effects weather is having on crops in other parts of the world. This because the farmer of today is part of a volatile, international market.
"Variability of climate equates to variability of price and so to the economic viability of US agriculture," Mr. McQuigg sa ys.