Read More: Popular Science
The atmosphere that blankets our planet contains around 5,600 trillion tons of air. It can blast the ground below with lightning, torrential rain, heat waves, and tornadoes, or caress it with a light breeze or dusting of snowflakes. As the past few days have reminded us, it’s no small feat to make predictions about what this vast, seething mass of wind and water will do. But our forecasting prowess—at least when it comes to predicting how hot the coming days will be—has been making impressive strides. High-temperature predictions have improved significantly over the past 12 years, according to a new report from ForecastWatch, a Columbus, Ohio-based company that assesses the accuracy of weather forecasts. In fact, our ability to pin down the next day’s high temperature has improved by almost a degree Fahrenheit, says founder Eric Floehr. That might not sound like much of an upgrade. But there’s a lot riding on weather forecasts, and a relatively small boost in accuracy can make a big difference when a country is faced with a natural disaster. And as weather forecasts become ever more sophisticated, you may come to realize that they've infiltrated other realms of technology to innocuously improve more typical days as well. “We’re in the middle of this big revolution in how we use weather,” says Bill Gail, co-founder and CTO of Global Weather Corporation, based in Boulder, Colorado, which provides forecasts to utilities and other businesses. “In a decade…those of us who already use weather information will be using it 100 times as often and won’t even know it.” Weather, weather everywhere There are some obvious benefits to having reliable weather reports, like advance warning before hurricanes like the recent Harvey. Predicting the path of a hurricane is essential to keeping people out of harm’s way. Still, fleeing a storm can be expensive. It’s been estimated that it costs $1 million per mile of coastline to evacuate before a hurricane. And as was the case in Houston last week, it can be difficult to determine whether or not forced evacuations will do more harm than good. Having more precise forecasts in future could cut down on the number of people who have to seek shelter, and help those in the path of the worst of the weather make crucial decisions. But outside of catastrophic events, less crucial forecasting needs still add up. Each year, companies in the United States lose more than $500 billion because of weather-related problems. Floehr says he consults with businesses that use weather forecasts in their decision-making as well as groups that provide weather forecasts to the public.