Even Slight Inaccuracies in Temperature Forecasts Affect Deaths

September 14, 2023

Can a weather forecast accuracy improvement of only 1 Celsius degree during heat waves actually save lives?

According to research by Jeffrey Shrader, Laura Bakkensen, and Derek Lemoine, researchers at Columbia University and the University of Arizona, the answer is yes. They studied 12 years of weather forecasts and mortality data at the county level for the United States and discovered a relationship between an increased number of deaths and forecasts off by as little as 1 Celsius degree (1.8 Fahrenheit degrees) during both summer heat waves and winter cold periods.

When forecasts were one Celsius degree too cool in summer, there was a 3% increase in deaths, while in winter, when forecasts were one Celsius degree too warm, there was a 0.5% increase in deaths. Although forecasts that were too hot in summer or too cold in winter did not result in increased numbers of deaths, the authors caution against forecasters intentionally exaggerating the heat or cold potential to avoid the “crying wolf” scenarios that could make people unprepared for future extreme weather if they are used to forecasts being too exaggerated.

The forecast accuracy in the researchers’ study improved by 27 percent between 2005 and 2017, but they also found that if accuracy can improve by 50 percent more, over 2,000 lives per year could be saved with the public willing to spend $2-3 billion per year to reduce this death risk, nearly twice as much as the annual budget of the National Weather Service. As economists, the researchers estimated this latter value from determining how people react to weather forecasts, how they spend their time and money based on forecasts, and from federal cost-benefit estimates.

Science X features a full article written by the authors of the research, including some description on their methodology.

ForecastWatch analyzes the accuracy of temperature forecasts. Our data offers the ability to request customizable collections – by location, time period, and forecast parameters, such as temperature – and have them conveniently delivered as easy-to-use CSV files. Contact us for more information.

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