The Muse, Published on
Studying drought while
surrounded in snow
MUN professor Ken Snelgrove aims to improve weather prediction models
By Juanita King
Ken Snelgrove is sitting in his
office at MUN but he is researching drought in the Prairies – a problem which
seems a world away for many Newfoundlanders buried under mountains of snow. Despite
the distance, the problem does have an affect here, and in the rest of
Snelgrove, an engineering
professor, is one of a group of 15 investigators who make up the Drought
Research Initiative. The group is studying the Prairie drought that began in 1999
and lasted until 2005.
“It was the biggest natural disaster in
What’s different about their research is that, instead of
collecting new data, the group is compiling data from the drought period. Snelgrove is looking at the models which forecast weather
“We’re pulling together the output from those models over
the Prairies to see how well that they did in these predictions,” said Snelgrove.
Three things their research will focus on are quantifying
the physical features of the drought; improving understanding of the processes
and feedbacks governing the formation, evolution, cessation, and structure of
the drought; and assessing and reducing uncertainties in the prediction of
drought and its structure.
The group also applied for funding to study societal issues
surrounding the drought, and to compare that particular drought to others
around the world. Unfortunately, they did not receive the funding, but they
hope to take up that study in the future.
“There are a number of societal impacts,” he said. “Drought
is quite devastating – there are mental health issues [and] physical health
issues associated with dust and other things that go along with drought.”
Most of their budget is spent on looking at existing records
and developing new models to help with the prediction of droughts. They plan to
test the models using old data because they know the outcome should be a
drought. If the models come to this conclusion as well, then they will have
made a step forward in weather prediction.
“Our hope is that the seasonal predictions could be
improved, because right now the seasonal predictions are terrible that
Environment Canada does,” said Snelgrove.
“It’s not because of anything they’re doing wrong – they’re
at the very state of the art of their science, it’s just really hard to make
those predictions. And so we think that if we initialize these models with
better data and better physics in [them], then perhaps these seasonal forecasts
could be improved.”
While Snelgrove looks forward to
helping improve weather predictability, he does say there is a lot of time
between doing research and applying the research.
“It’s a big gap between doing the science and making a forecast, and determining whether you’re going to put on a heavy coat or a light coat,” he said.