Happy to Beat the Snow – More Gross National Happiness Thanks to Accurate Weather Forecasts

An Austrian information system for more accurate snowfall forecasts is now being used in parts of the Himalayas. The MetGIS system allows the weather service in the Kingdom of Bhutan to combine meteorological data with geographical information for the first time. The system, which was developed with the help of the Austrian Science Fund FWF, has been used in a number of the highest mountain ranges on the planet for some time now. In Bhutan, it was not just the technological performance of the new system that impressed, but also its contribution that more accurate weather forecasts make to the “Gross National Happiness.” The GNH index was introduced by Bhutan to measure the immaterial living standards of its people.

More accurate weather forecasts increase the Gross National Happiness in Bhutan. © Use of this photo for editorial purposes is free of charge, subject to attribution: Gerald Spreitzhofer

The wealth of a nation is quantified in terms of economic performance – or is it? By calculating Gross National Happiness (GNH), Bhutan has chosen a different path. It is a measure of the importance of, for instance, cultural identity, the environment or clean water for health and well-being. Increasing economic wealth is also viewed in a close context with rising GNH. Transport routes in the impassable mountain state, which is especially exposed to the climate, are important for both happiness and the economy: If the routes are not trafficable, many of the population’s basic needs cannot be satisfied, causing the GNH to drop. Little wonder, then, that the Himalayan monarchy has a national interest in accurate methods for predicting the weather – and that it has recently chosen to invest in methods from the Alpine region.

The Pinnacle of Precision
Mag. Dr. Gerald Spreitzhofer of the Institute of Meteorology and Geophysics Vienna explains: “Recently, Bhutan decided to install the MetGIS information system, which we had been developing since 2003. MetGIS enables forecasting of snowfall occurrences with unprecedented accuracy.” The trick is to combine meteorological data with topographical information from the forecast area, as the local terrain significantly influences how the weather unfolds – especially in high-alpine mountain ranges. However, for global forecasts, such regional topography can only be considered to a limited extent. For example, the European Center for Medium Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) and the US National Center for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) employ forecasting models that are based on surface data with a spatial resolution of max. 20 x 20 kilometres. Such a grid allows for the prediction of global weather developments, but is, however, too coarse to include the finer details of the earth’s surface.

The Global Made Regional
Dr. Spreitzhofer explains that things can be done differently: “Downscaling, a statistical calculation method, allows us to apply the global weather data to the particular surface structure of a regionally confined space. Besides the global weather data and a computer, two more components are required: regional data on the earth’s surface and the MetGIS software that we have developed.” The latter is exactly what is currently being used in Bhutan to produce weather forecasts with a horizontal resolution of up to 100 metres, which enables the precise differentiation of areas with snowfall, sleet and rain.

The accuracy of MetGIS, the development of which was funded by, among others, the FWF, has been confirmed in verification studies. The program has also proved itself in the field with Austrian motorway concessionaire ASFINAG, at surface mines and ski resorts in the Andes and with the avalanche warning services in the Pyrenees. In order for MetGIS to work in Bhutan, it had to be adapted to the climatic and topographical conditions there – a task that was jump-started by the project “Modern know-how for Bhutan’s weather service” of the ADA, the Austrian Development Agency. That MetGIS can contribute to the welfare of the Himalayan nation was confirmed by Bhutan’s Ministry of Happiness, which is responsible for monitoring the GNH. It is a wonderful example of how basic research can bring happiness to people’s lives.

Scientific contact
Mag. Dr. Gerald Spreitzhofer
Institute of Meteorology and Geophysics
Althanstraße 14 (UZA II)
1090 Vienna, Austria
T +43/1/4277 - 537 38

Austrian Science Fund (FWF)
Mag. Stefan Bernhardt
Haus der Forschung
Sensengasse 1
1090 Vienna, Austria
T +43 / 1 / 505 67 40 - 8111

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Vienna, 7th March 2011