Wave forecasts have improved significantly over recent years –– but they still have a long way to go. Today, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) uses statistical wave models – known as WaveWatchIII – to understand and forecast the size, movement, energy and timing of waves. These models are vital for disaster preparedness, optimizing shipping routes, and understanding climate change.
Yet, predictions are often inaccurate, leading to arrival times that are many hours too early (or late) and wave heights that can be off by 100% or more. This has significant repercussions for researchers seeking to better understand our planet. Here’s why national weather agencies, private weather companies, and the public need better wave forecasts – and some ways we can make these forecasts more accurate.
Why do we need better wave forecasts?
Over the past 14 years, NOAA has made a concerted effort to improve the accuracy of their wave forecasts –– not just for researchers, but also to improve maritime safety and to enable the commercial interests of shipping companies around the world.
Waves can cause big headaches for shipping and logistics companies. From interfering with the optimal route to damaging cargo and vessels, marine shipping companies use wave forecasts regularly in their business operations. “Wave forecasts can be incorporated into digital e-navigation algorithms to adjust and optimize ship course and speed based on predicted conditions several hours, days, or weeks into the future,” explains one industry expert.
And, luckily, NOAA’s wave forecasting has improved since the early 2000s. In 2004, when NOAA started to keep track, the agency was only able to predict wave height accurately about 67% of the time. In 2019, the agency recorded wave height accurately 85% of the time – a massive improvement in just 15 years, but still not perfect.
In addition to the commercial benefits of better wave forecasts, marine and environmental researchers can learn a lot from wave data. Here are some examples of the ways in which a researcher can benefit from improved wave forecasts.
Wave forecasts for researchers
Universities, non-profits, and government agencies alike stand to benefit from improvements to wave forecasting. Here are just five examples of ways scientists can utilize better data.
Better environmental forecasting
Wave forecasts help scientists and researchers contain and mitigate environmental disasters, such as oil spills. Wave forecasts can help researchers predict where a chemical or oil spill might disperse in a body of water. Not only do wave forecasts help researchers anticipate the best immediate response to an environmental disaster, but they can also help avoid working in places where the wave movement and energy makes drilling too risky.
Almost anyone now has unlimited access to unprecedented computing power. Researchers, weather scientists and forecasters are able to run models that deliver a high level of detail – but only if they have great data to feed into the system.
What does increased computing power mean to researchers? Historically, NOAA and their counterparts have used what’s known as “ensemble forecasting.” This produces statistical forecasting using dozens of models that start from slightly different points. “An ensemble samples the uncertainty of the forecast, assuming that the forecast model is perfect,” explains Met Office UK.
In recent years, however, researchers have been able to leverage big data and run “real-time assimilations” using extensive observation networks. These powerful models require accurate wave forecasts to dramatically speed up and accurately forecast changes on the ocean and in our atmosphere.
Identify long-term risks
A rapid response to environmental emergencies is just one aspect of climate protection that wave forecasts can help strengthen. Long-term climate change models also benefit from wave reports.
“Surface gravity waves generated by winds have far-reaching implications for coastal areas. Wind-waves are an important contributor to coastal flooding and sediment transport, shaping headlands, bays and the open coasts, and determining where and how coastal infrastructure are built,” explains one research study in Nature Communications. “Understanding how waves change is critical to assess the impacts of climate change at the coast.”
Wave forecast data show researchers where coastal areas are at risk and help city planners make adjustments that can protect our homes and businesses.
Improve sustainable aquaculture
The practice of aquaculture, or the farming of fish, shellfish, algae, is starting to grow more popular in offshore marine environments. For these operations to be successful, aquaculture researchers need wave data to help protect their farms and maximize sustainability.
The EU, in particular, is looking at combining renewable energy with aquaculture. For instance, Wave Dragon is a Danish/UK-based company that aims to deploy an array of wave energy converters off the Welsh coast in combination with a seaweed farm. “By doing so we can become more efficient, share technological learning, share installation and maintenance costs, and most importantly, take our seaweed farms into areas we couldn’t previously consider,” said one representative.
Wave forecasts need to be accurate for this vision to come to fruition. Without precise data, these aquaculture operations may miss out on the opportunity to run more sustainably.
Better renewable energy
Fish farms aren’t the only area in which wave energy can play a role. Research into wave energy as an alternative renewable energy source is a growing field – one which can benefit from improved wave forecasts.
“Intermittency is one of the problems affecting renewable energies, including marine energy: sometimes there's a lot; other times it's in short supply,” explained ScienceDaily. “So to properly manage sea energy and incorporate it into the mains, it is helpful to know when the waves are expected to be bringing sufficient power.”
Clearly, researchers in a number of different fields would find better wave forecasting useful: organizations like NOAA are working toward this goal. How are they doing it?
The answer: better data. Experts are combining data from public and private sources to generate a more accurate global wave forecast. NOAA’s forecasting models combined with private sources of data can reduce forecasting error in some cases by more than 50%. The difference is entirely due to the data. Learn more about our data and work to improve wave forecasts by reading about the Sofar API.