Weather Science Aids Flu Forecasts

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), December 10, 2012 | Go to article overview

Weather Science Aids Flu Forecasts


Byline: Jason Samenow Washington Post By Jason Samenow Washington Post

The impressive performance of state of the art weather forecasting systems led to strikingly accurate forecasts for Superstorm Sandy at long lead times. A new study finds the same technology that has led to such weather forecasting feats may help us determine when were most likely to catch the flu, which kills 35,000 Americans each year.

Thanks to a collaboration between scientists at Columbia Universitys Mailman School of Public Health and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a model for predicting flu outbreaks has been developed that operates like a modern day weather modeling system.

It processes gobs of data and conveys not only the most likely forecast but also the range of possibilities to provide an idea of the uncertainty.

"Analogous to weather prediction, this system can potentially be used to estimate the probability of regional outbreaks of the flu several weeks in advance," said Alicia Karspeck, NCAR scientist and study co-author.

Karspeck and Columbia University colleague Jeffrey Shaman ran their model for the 2003-2008 flu seasons in New York City to determine how well it could predict the timing of outbreaks. The results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"The findings indicate that real-time skillful predictions of peak timing [of a flu outbreak] can be made more than 7 weeks in advance of the actual peak," the study said.

The modeling system Shaman and Karspeck developed optimizes itself by continually bringing into the model near-real-time data from Google Flu Trends, a tracker of flu activity.

The data are critical, because they make up for incomplete understanding about the relationship between weather and flu and non-weather factors. …

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