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How Meteorologists Predict the Weather: Methods & Process

Instructor: Lori Jones

Lori has a degree from Stanford, was Principal of a K-12 private school that she started, has a Master's degree, and taught at the high school level.

Did you ever wonder how meteorologists predict the weather? Read on to learn more about some of the methods and processes they use to guide them in their weather forecasts.

Why Weather is Predicted

Think about one of the first things you do when you wake up in the morning and start getting ready for your day. You get up, take a shower, have some breakfast or coffee, and decide what to wear. This last item often depends on what the weather is going to be for that day. You probably check the forecast through your phone, the radio or television, or the paper.

While the best way to determine the weather is to step outside and see what it's doing, we all still rely on meteorologists to inform us of the weather we are about about to face. There may be some surprises later in the day!

Meteorologists help us to plan our activities around the upcoming weather, and avoid certain outcomes like storms.
lightning

Meteorologists (also called 'forecasters') are scientists who study weather patterns and atmospheric conditions. They compile data from thousands of observation sites, then create and analyze computer models based on that data.

Although weather forecasting isn't always accurate, there are several scientific methods and tools meteorologists use to make the most accurate prediction possible. Let's take a look how they make those predictions.

Meteorology Methods

Recent Weather Patterns

To predict the weather for a particular day, meteorologists first take a look at what weather occurred in the past 24 hours in a particular area, as well as what's happening right now. Most local weather is determined by location, or the geographic conditions of the area.

For example, we know that the northeast and upper Midwest regions of the US are prone to heavy snowfalls in the winter; hurricanes are common in the southeast; hot temperatures (both dry and humid) are characteristic of the south and southwest; and tornadoes are prevalent in the Great Plains.

This general knowledge may provide a foundation for predicting the weather in a particular region, however, meteorologists require much more detailed information to predict the local weather on a daily basis.

Radar like this is often used to track precipitation and weather patterns.
Radar map

Forecasting Tools

This detailed information begins with various forecasting tools meteorologists have at their disposal. Using tools such as satellites, radar, and surface maps, meteorologists look at patterns in the atmosphere, beginning with general patterns, then narrowing it down to the more specific details. We've all heard of satellites and radar, but you might not be familiar with surface maps.

Surface maps are used to view areas of low and high pressure.
Example of a Surface Map

Surface maps indicate certain weather components like areas of high pressure or low pressure. High pressure brings us good weather, such as those clear summer skies, whereas low pressure gives us those stormy days and nights in the spring.

Forecasting Models

The next step that forecasters use is to look at computer forecasting models, which show different scenarios of what might happen with the weather. Every day, millions of observations from satellites are recorded into these models, and they are frequently updated to improve future weather forecasting.

Meteorologists have dozens of these models to look at, each of which can produce a different result every time atmospheric conditions are altered slightly. This collection of models, called a model ensemble, gives meteorologists an even greater number of possible predictions.

For example, one model may predict a day of mostly sunny skies. But if a meteorologist increases the wind speed slightly, the model may show mostly cloudy or even rainy skies later in the day. Or if rain is predicted on a cold spring day, a slight drop in temperature could change that rain to sleet or even snow, which probably isn't something we want to see in the spring!

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