Years ago, on a backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada mountains with my friend Eric, we stopped to rest in a lake basin beneath a giant blue sky. We had been in the backcountry long enough that our minds had unchained from the city, and it seemed obvious to ask Eric to name his favorite force of nature.
“Clouds,” he replied, as we gazed up into the sky where a few of them wandered lonely. “Because they’re the one force on Earth that Man can’t control.”
I’ve thought about Eric’s answer often, and especially in the last week or so while I reported a story for the New York Times on the new science of solar forecasting. The discipline could as easily call itself “cloud forecasting,” since that is the phenomenon that prompted its rise. As solar power has started to emerge as an important part of the energy grid, especially in California, the erratic flight path of clouds has turned from a topic of idle speculation into one of serious concern.
The lead subject of the story is Carlos Coimbra, a fluid engineer at the University of California at San Diego (coincidentally, my alma mater). He and another engineer, Jan Kliessl, have hit upon a way to track the path of clouds with far more accuracy than existing techniques. The innovation could save a lot of money for the companies that build and operate solar plants, as well as utilities and operators of the power grid, and even the homeowners and businesses that use electricity.
But the discovery may be even more significant in creating hyperlocal weather forecasts. The exact path of storm in the next hour is a matter of life and death for an airline pilot or a crew battling a forest fire. A fine-grained weather prediction could be invaluable to farmers who watch the sky for the next cloudburst that will water their crops, or the hailstorm that could ruin them.
I happened upon Coimbra’s and Kleissl’s work in 2010 while seeking a topic for the eco-technology column I write for Sierra magazine, and I ended up doing an entry about their discoveries. But the column didn’t provide enough space to explore the subject fully. Earlier this year I asked around again and found that government and private industry were waking up to the possibilities of a good cloud forecast.
We still can’t control the route that clouds take through the heavens, and I hope we never do. Like Eric, I prefer to live in a world that hovers beyond our complete control. But using our smarts to guess where clouds are going exhibits both cleverness and an admirable humility.