The Importance of Uncertainty in the Detection of Weather Events: Probabilistic Detection of Atmospheric Rivers
It has become increasingly common for researchers to utilize methods that identify weather features in climate models. There is an increasing recognition that the uncertainty associated with choice of detection method may affect our scientific understanding. For example, results from the Atmospheric River Tracking Method Intercomparison Project (ARTMIP) indicate that there are a broad range of plausible atmospheric river (AR) detectors, and that scientific results can depend on the algorithm used. There are similar examples from the literature on extratropical cyclones and tropical cyclones. It is therefore imperative to develop detection techniques that explicitly quantify the uncertainty associated with the detection of events. We seek to answer the question: given a ‘plausible’ AR detector, how does uncertainty in the detector quantitatively impact scientific results? We develop a large dataset of global AR counts, manually identified by a set of 9 researchers with expertise in atmospheric science, which we use to constrain parameters in a novel AR detection method. We use a Bayesian framework to sample from the set of AR detector parameters that yield AR counts similar to the expert database of AR counts; this yields a set of ‘plausible’ AR detectors from which we can assess quantitative uncertainty. This probabilistic AR detector has been implemented in the Toolkit for Extreme Climate Analysis (TECA), which allows for efficient processing of petabyte-scale datasets. We apply the TECA probabilistic AR detector to a suite of reanalyses and global climate simulations and show that, at least in some cases, different plausible parameter settings can yield trends of differing signs.