The Muse, Published on March 8th, 2007. Vol. 57 Issue 20


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 Canada.


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 Canada from a financial perspective. It really hurt the economy,” said Snelgrove.


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 in Canada, and also records of stream flows, well data, and satellite observations.


“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.