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Deep Learning System Can Accurately Predict Extreme Weather

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Engineers at Rice University have developed a deep learning system that is capable of accurately predicting extreme weather events up to five days in advance. The system, which taught itself, only requires minimal information about current weather conditions in order to make the predictions.             

Part of the system’s training involves examining hundreds of pairs of maps, and each map indicates surface temperatures and air pressures at five-kilometers height. Those conditions are shown several days apart. The training also presents scenarios that produced extreme weather, such as hot and cold spells that can cause heat waves and winter storms. Upon completing the training, the deep learning system was able to make five-day forecasts of extreme weather based on maps it had not previously seen, with an accuracy rate of 85%.

According to Pedram Hassanzadeh, co-author of the study which was published online in the American Geophysical Union’s Journal of Advances in Modeling Earth Systems, the system could be used as a tool and act as an early warning for weather forecasters. It will be especially useful for learning more about certain atmospheric conditions that cause extreme weather scenarios. 

Because of the invention of computer-based numerical weather prediction (NWP) in the 1950s, day-to-day weather forecasts have continued to improve. However, NWP is not able to make reliable predictions about extreme weather events, such as heat waves. 

“It may be that we need faster supercomputers to solve the governing equations of the numerical weather prediction models at higher resolutions,” said Hassanzadeh, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Rice University. “But because we don't fully understand the physics and precursor conditions of extreme-causing weather patterns, it's also possible that the equations aren't fully accurate, and they won't produce better forecasts, no matter how much computing power we put in.”

In 2017, Hassanzadeh was joined by study co-authors and graduate students Ashesh Chattopadhyay and Ebrahim Nabizadeh. Together, they set out on a different path. 

“When you get these heat waves or cold spells, if you look at the weather map, you are often going to see some weird behavior in the jet stream, abnormal things like large waves or a big high-pressure system that is not moving at all,” Hassanzadeh said. “It seemed like this was a pattern recognition problem. So we decided to try to reformulate extreme weather forecasting as a pattern-recognition problem rather than a numerical problem.”

“We decided to train our model by showing it a lot of pressure patterns in the five kilometers above the Earth, and telling it, for each one, ‘This one didn't cause extreme weather. This one caused a heat wave in California. This one didn't cause anything. This one caused a cold spell in the Northeast,'” Hassanzadeh continued. “Not anything specific like Houston versus Dallas, but more of a sense of the regional area.”

Prior to computers, analog forecasting was used for weather prediction. It was done in a very similar way to the new system, but it was humans instead of computers. 

“One way prediction was done before computers is they would look at the pressure system pattern today, and then go to a catalog of previous patterns and compare and try to find an analog, a closely similar pattern,” Hassanzadeh said. “If that one led to rain over France after three days, the forecast would be for rain in France.”

Now, neural networks can learn on their own and do not necessarily need to rely on humans to find connections. 

“It didn't matter that we don't fully understand the precursors because the neural network learned to find those connections itself,” Hassanzadeh said. “It learned which patterns were critical for extreme weather, and it used those to find the best analog.”

To test their concept, the team relied on data taken from realistic computer simulations. They originally reported early results with a convolutional neural network, but the team then shifted towards capsule neural networks. Convolutional neural networks are not able to recognize relative spatial relationships, but capsule neural networks can. These relative spatial relationships are important when it comes to the evolution of weather patterns. 

“The relative positions of pressure patterns, the highs and lows you see on weather maps, are the key factor in determining how weather evolves,” Hassanzadeh said.

Capsule neural networks also require less training data than convolutional neural networks. 

The team will continue to work on the system in order for it to be capable of being used in operational forecasting, but Hassanzadeh hopes that it eventually will lead to more accurate forecasts for extreme weather. 

“We are not suggesting that at the end of the day this is going to replace NWP,” he said. “But this might be a useful guide for NWP. Computationally, this could be a super cheap way to provide some guidance, an early warning, that allows you to focus NWP resources specifically where extreme weather is likely.”

“We want to leverage ideas from explainable AI (artificial intelligence) to interpret what the neural network is doing,” he said. “This might help us identify the precursors to extreme-causing weather patterns and improve our understanding of their physics.”


Alex McFarland is a tech writer who covers the latest developments in artificial intelligence. He has worked with AI startups and publications across the globe.