Forecasting the Future

by Morgan Spehar

Adam Brokaw, Photo provided by Adam Brokaw

Adam Brokaw has known he wanted to be a meteorologist since he was 9 years old, when he used to watch the Weather Channel for fun. Now a fifth-year senior at Ohio University, Brokaw is set to graduate in December with a degree in meteorology.

“It was very math and physics heavy,” he said. “But that made me more interested in meteorology because it made me realize why certain things were happening.”

For his senior capstone project, Brokaw studied teleconnections, which are correlations between meteorological or climate events that happen huge distances apart. He specifically looked at the El Niño and La Niña phenomena, North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) and Arctic Oscillation (AO), searching for information on how these far away conditions influence winter climate in southeastern Ohio.

“I didn’t really want to study climate,” he admitted. “But I do think it’s vital to understand as a meteorologist. One of the biggest threats to our future is climate change, and so understanding climate can help us combat these extreme weather and seasons that we’re having.”  

An El Niño occurs when there are warmer than average surface water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, which lead to unusually warm winters in the United States. A La Niña is the exact opposite – colder than average surface water temperatures make winter in the Northwest abnormally cold for significant periods of time. 

The NAO is based on the difference in the sea-level pressure in two parts of the Northern Atlantic Ocean. Brokaw explained that if there is a big difference in pressure, the weather will be much more extreme. The AO deals with pressure circulation around the North Pole, a higher pressure will allow winds to bring colder air down to North America, and a lower pressure keeps those winds up north. 

For his research, Brokaw looked at the index values of each teleconnection, which showed how much the climate in a particular year varied from the average climate. He then compared that to the average monthly temperatures and total precipitation in southeastern Ohio from December to February, compiling data from 1975 through 2019. 

“Something that kind of threw me off guard was when we realized there was no significant relationship between El Niño and La Niña and weather in southern Ohio,” he said. “They weren’t really a big factor in the climate.” 

However, the effects of the NAO and AO were significant. 

“The Arctic Oscillation, in particular, had a very substantial significant relationship,” Brokaw said. 

The relationship was positive, which means that the strength of the pressure circulation in the Arctic has a large impact on how much precipitation falls and how cold winters are in Ohio. 

Conducting research in climatology can make meteorologists’ jobs much easier by helping them more accurately predict whether the seasons will be mild or harsh. 

“If we can determine relationships, we can use that to create better forecasts,” he said. 

Brokaw will soon be predicting the future at his dream job as a weather officer in the Air Force, which he’ll start in Germany in September 2020. He will be using information like the research he conducted here at OU in order to help pilots and ground troops anticipate the weather.  

“There’s a lot of research going on with meteorology,” he said. “It’s very technology-based so we’re doing everything we can to try to forecast because we’re basically trying to predict the future.” 

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