Pacific pattern provides early heat wave warning

Image: Heat map
A color-coded map shows how hot temperatures got on June 29, 2012, with the reddest region indicating temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. A model based on Pacific sea surface temperatures could predict such a heat wave up to seven weeks in advance. (Credit: NWS Weather Prediction Center)

Meteorologists say they’ve found a pattern in Pacific Ocean sea surface temperatures that could help authorities prepare for heat waves in the eastern United States up to 50 days in advance.

Now that the pattern has been found, forecasters will start keeping track of the heat wave indicators in May. But don’t expect the 50-day forecast to show up in the nightly weather report.

“Most seasonal predictions, including this one, are probabilistic rather than deterministic,” lead author Karen McKinnon, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, explained in an email. “For example, we can predict an increase in the odds in favor of having a hot day in the Eastern U.S. from about 1 in 6, to 1 in 2, at lead times of 40 days if the Pacific Extreme Pattern is particularly strong.”

She said the indicators are most likely to come into play during preparations for the peak of the summer.

“For example, city leaders could ensure they have sufficient cooling rooms for the elderly or those without air conditioning; farmers could alter their management tactics to prevent crop loss; businesses could be prepared for increased demand of air conditioners and fans; and utilities could ensure they have sufficient power options available to bring online quickly in case of a spike in demand,” she said.

The research was published today by Nature Geoscience. One of the authors, Andy Rhines, is a climate scientist at the University of Washington.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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