You might not need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, but you do need a weatherman to know how the weather will affect your business. I chatted with Judah Cohen, director of seasonal forecasting at the Atmospheric and Environmental Research, about his job, the upcoming hurricane season and what he does when one of his friends asks him for the forecast.
I was on your website, wondering out loud how anyone can profit from the weather, to which my husband responded, “Haven’t you ever seen ‘Trading Places’?” Is that how it actually works? How do your clients use the forecasts you provide?
Whenever any S&P 500 company misses on earnings, the first thing they blame is the unexpected weather detrimental to their business. But weather doesn’t only have to be bad for business. If you correctly anticipate the weather in advance, you can protect yourself from potential downside, or even profit from opportunities.
Most of our clients have used our seasonal forecasts for investments related to the energy market. Cold winters and hot summers are bullish for energy suppliers, while mild winters and cool summers are bearish. Energy suppliers can use seasonal forecasts to hedge against poor revenue forecasts of weak energy demand. Also, money managers can adjust their investment portfolio based on seasonal forecasts, investing in or buying energy company stocks when demand for energy is anticipated to be strong, but selling when energy demand is anticipated to be slack.
And as your husband was referring to, weather information can be used to trade agriculture-based commodities. In the movie “Trading Places” they traded orange juice, but as far as I can tell most of the money is in trading grain. It can be very profitable to buy grain futures ahead of a drought, or sell the futures ahead of ideal weather conditions for growing grain and record harvests.
I heard last week that this year is supposed to be a relatively low-key one when it comes to hurricanes. What kind of information goes into a forecast like that?
Like all long-range weather forecasts, seasonal hurricane forecasting is far from an exact science. Last year’s hurricane forecasts were very poor, predicting an active season, but in reality it was a record low active season.
The main input into this year’s forecasts of a below normal hurricane season are ocean temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific. When temperatures are above normal in this region, it’s referred to as an El Niño, and the summer forecasts are almost universal that an El Niño will develop this summer. El Niños are thought to favor stronger westerly winds in the Jet Stream (six to nine miles above the earth’s surface). When winds are weak or easterly at the surface in the subtropics but strong westerly with height, this creates vertical wind shear. Strong wind shear is very hostile to hurricane formation, cutting the tops off of thunderstorms that fuel hurricane growth.
The thinking for this summer is that El Niño will impede hurricane development in the Atlantic basin, keeping the numbers low.
I know weather is not climate, but how is climate change affecting your work and the businesses of your clients? Do you think corporations and governments are further along in their understanding of climate change than the public?
Weather and climate are related, and even though climate change is on a time scale much longer than just one season, it’s possible that climate change is changing the distribution of experiencing a cold winter or a hot summer. I have been more and more actively trying to understand how climate change might increase or decrease the probability of a cold winter or a hot summer. It’s an interesting question whether this past winter’s “polar vortex” was caused by climate change.
The clients I have interacted with tend to be fairly conservative in their thinking and beliefs, and I would say their opinions are similar or comparable to that of the American public, and they express a healthy dose of skepticism about climate change, at least that which is attributable to human activity. But opinions can vary among sectors. The energy sector is generally very skeptical about climate change, but they see climate change as a barrier to development, investment and higher profits. The insurance sector is more accepting of climate change and its attribution to human activity. But they are looking for an easy answer to a sharp increase in the cost of natural disasters over the past decade.
Most of those I interact with from the government are scientists, and almost 100 percent of the scientists I communicate with are strong believers in climate change and its connection to human activity.
The earth is definitely getting warmer, but it’s a difficult problem predicting the interaction between all of the components of the climate system and the future consequences.
Do you keep an umbrella in the car, or are you just that good that you don’t need one?
There’s no umbrella in my car, but that has nothing to do with my forecasting prowess. I am often quite oblivious to today’s or tomorrow’s weather. And when you’re a meteorologist you can’t get away with “I don’t know” when asked whether it’s going to rain today. You wouldn’t believe the grief I get for telling friends and relatives that they don’t need to worry about rain, only to have them get soaked! And once someone gets caught in the rain, it’s a story worth telling over and over again.
So I’ve learned that when someone asks me the weather, I just tell him or her to watch The Weather Channel or listen to the radio. I have a friend who likes to remind me that the Talmud (Ta’anit) teaches us that God kept three keys for himself: the key for childbirth, the key for revival of the dead, and the key for rain. I keep asking God to share with me his key for rain, but I guess I need to keep searching!
Four Questions is a weekly interview column featuring interesting people connected with the Greater Boston Jewish community. Find past columns here. Have an idea of someone we should interview? Email Molly!
This post has been contributed by a third party. The opinions, facts and any media content are presented solely by the author, and JewishBoston assumes no responsibility for them. Want to add your voice to the conversation? Publish your own post here.