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Monday, February 7, 2000

Science hunts
for ways to get a
jump on weather

International research looks
at the cycles and how they affect
climates and peoples

By Helen Altonn


The energy-water cycle in the Earth's atmosphere appears to be intensifying, which may have a profound impact on some regions, according to climate specialists.

Indications are that the circulation of water is changing in the biosphere, where life is found, said Soroosh Sorooshian of the University of Arizona.

As a result, some regions may have more or less rain and shorter or worse winters, he said. Hawaii will feel the effects of severe weather elsewhere with shortages and higher food prices, Sorooshian said.

"These issues interface with society as a whole," he emphasized. "Water is critical."

About 50 international scientists concerned with the Earth's climate system reviewed their research progress during meetings here last week. They are members of the Scientific Steering Group for a Global Energy and Water Cycle Experiment established in 1989 by the World Climate Research Program. Sorooshian is steering group chairman.

Roger Newson, acting director of the Geneva-based World Meteorological Organization's Climate Research Program, said more intense mid-latitude winter storms, such as Europe had this winter, could be a consequence of a more intense hydrological cycle, and also could affect the number and strength of hurricanes.

Researchers who used to work independently in atmospheric, ocean, polar ice, hydrology and related fields are cooperating to try to understand natural variables in the complex system, he said.

Numerical weather models have improved as a result, Sorooshian said. His group is studying the troposphere, the lowest part of the atmosphere where wind, storms and other weather features occur.

Other researchers are looking at the stratosphere and interactions with the troposphere, as well as ice-covered regions.

Global warming and the impact of fossil fuels stirred awareness among atmospheric, ocean and polar researchers that, "Hey, gee, it's one biosphere -- one system," Sorooshian said.

He said the mainland temperature has increased 1 degree Fahrenheit in the past 100 years. "That may not appear as a big deal but it becomes a big deal when you look at the rainfall."

Some areas had a 20 percent increase in rainfall in the past century, he said.

Globally, the temperature has risen and severity of drought has worsened in some regions, he said.

"We need to really understand why," Sorooshian said, stressing the climate changes have an impact on health and disease and food and water requirements for increasing populations.

Newson said the scientists hope to provide information for more confident forecasts at least a season ahead.

If they can say conditions will be abnormally dry or wet, he said, "perhaps people can husband resources better.

"We can't forecast a hurricane three months from now but we can say there is a higher probability of hurricanes," Newson added.

Sorooshian said a lot of scientific effort has been diverted to understand "why we were getting so many extreme weather signals."

Arizona, for example, has had the driest winter on record, he said, while unusual rainfalls in Venezuela destroyed coastal villages.

"That event illustrates the complexity of the whole system," Newson said, noting that changing land uses and cutting forests leads to mudslides.

"We can't only consider the atmosphere, ocean and ice sheets, but also green vegetation, the biospheric people," he said.

The climate group's meeting was hosted by the International Pacific Research Center, founded at the University of Hawaii in 1997 by the United States and Japan to improve understanding and forecasting of climate changes and natural disasters.

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