Father And Sons Win Rainfall Forecasting Contest

Mar 24, 2019

We’ve got 10-day weather forecasts. We’ve got NOAA seasonal outlook forecasts. But there’s a no man’s land in between, and that’s where predictions get really tricky.

It’s such a challenge that the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water in the Western US, put out a contest called the Sub-Seasonal Climate Forecast Rodeo with total prizes of $525,000. The winning teams would have to beat the baseline prediction for rainfall in the Southwestern United States for the period of three to six weeks in the future.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution scientist emeritus Ray Schmitt had worked on the idea of using the saltiness of the ocean to predict rainfall for several years but hadn’t been able to get funding to pursue it.

Now, with the help of his twin adult sons, Eric and Stephen, Ray Schmitt has won two out of the three categories in the competition.

The team, which they call Salient, showed that the saltiness of the ocean, measured at certain points, is an important untapped variable.

Whenever it rains, the water coming out of the sky has evaporated from somewhere else, most likely the ocean. That process leaves behind an especially salty patch of water.

Ray Schmitt said he needed his sons’ help to enter the contest because, although he has the oceanography knowledge to enter the contest, he doesn’t have the computer skills.

“At Christmas I see the boys… and they tell me they've been using artificial intelligence to play computer games,” Ray Schmitt told Living Lab Radio. And I said, ‘How'd you like to enter a real competition with real prize money?’”

Asked why he agreed to help, Eric Schmitt said it was a combination of things.

“I think it was a bit of curiosity, a bit of wanting to please my dad, and a bit of the potential for reward money,” said Eric, who works as a mechanical engineer at Veryst Engineering in Needham.

Stephen Schmitt, who is a software developer at Network Appliances in Waltham, said the money will come in handy because he just got engaged to be married.

In the contest, the team’s forecasts were twice as good as the nearest competitor, which was a professional forecast company.

Asked whether the outcome made him question the quality of professional weather forecasting, Stephen Schmitt said it did not.

“I don't think it's discouraging so much as encouraging of what the future might hold with the latest technology that's being developed,” he said.

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