An introduction to weather forecasting with deep learning

With all that is going on in the world these days, is it frivolous to talk about weather prediction? Asked in the 21st
century, this is bound to be a rhetorical question. In the 1930s, when German poet Bertolt Brecht wrote the famous lines:

Was sind das für Zeiten, wo
Ein Gespräch über Bäume fast ein Verbrechen ist
Weil es ein Schweigen über so viele Untaten einschließt!

(“What kind of times are these, where a conversation about trees is almost a crime, for it means silence about so many

he couldn’t have anticipated the responses he would get in the second half of that century, with trees symbolizing, as well as
literally falling victim to, environmental pollution and climate change.

Today, no lengthy justification is needed as to why prediction of atmospheric states is vital: Due to global warming,
frequency and intensity of severe weather conditions – droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, heatwaves – have risen and will
continue to rise. And while accurate forecasts don’t change those events per se, they constitute essential information in
mitigating their consequences. This goes for atmospheric forecasts on all scales: from so-called “nowcasting” (operating on a
range of about six hours), over medium-range (three to five days) and sub-seasonal (weekly/monthly), to climate forecasts
(concerned with years and decades). Medium-range forecasts especially are extremely important in acute disaster prevention.

This post will show how deep learning (DL) methods can be used to generate atmospheric forecasts, using a newly published
benchmark dataset(Rasp et al. 2020). Future posts may refine the model used here
and/or discuss the role of DL (“AI”) in mitigating climate change – and its implications – more globally.

That said, let’s put the current endeavor in context. In a way, we have here the usual dejà vu of using DL as a
black-box-like, magic instrument on a task where human knowledge used to be required. Of course, this characterization is
overly dichotomizing; many choices are made in creating DL models, and performance is necessarily constrained by available
algorithms – which may, or may not, fit the domain to be modeled to a sufficient degree.

If you’ve started learning about image recognition rather recently, you may well have been using DL methods from the outset,
and not have heard much about the rich set of feature engineering methods developed in pre-DL image recognition. In the
context of atmospheric prediction, then, let’s begin by asking: How in the world did they do that before?

Numerical weather prediction in a nutshell

It is not like machine learning and/or statistics are not already used in numerical weather prediction – on the contrary. For
example, every model has to start from somewhere; but raw observations are not suited to direct use as initial conditions.
Instead, they have to be assimilated to the four-dimensional grid over which model computations are performed. At the
other end, namely, model output, statistical post-processing is used to refine the predictions. And very importantly, ensemble
forecasts are employed to determine uncertainty.

That said, the model core, the part that extrapolates into the future atmospheric conditions observed today, is based on a
set of differential equations, the so-called primitive equations,
that are due to the conservation laws of momentum,
energy, and
mass. These differential equations cannot be solved analytically;
rather, they have to be solved numerically, and that on a grid of resolution as high as possible. In that light, even deep
learning could appear as just “moderately resource-intensive” (dependent, though, on the model in question). So how, then,
could a DL approach look?

Deep learning models for weather prediction

Accompanying the benchmark dataset they created, Rasp et al.(Rasp et al. 2020) provide a set of notebooks, including one
demonstrating the use of a simple convolutional neural network to predict two of the available atmospheric variables, 500hPa
and 850hPa temperature. Here 850hPa temperature is the (spatially varying) temperature at a fix atmospheric
height of 850hPa (~ 1.5 kms) ; 500hPa geopotential is proportional to the (again, spatially varying) altitude
associated with the pressure level in question (500hPa).

For this task, two-dimensional convnets, as usually employed in image processing, are a natural fit: Image width and height
map to longitude and latitude of the spatial grid, respectively; target variables appear as channels. In this architecture,
the time series character of the data is essentially lost: Every sample stands alone, without dependency on either past or
present. In this respect, as well as given its size and simplicity, the convnet presented below is only a toy model, meant to
introduce the approach as well as the application overall. It may also serve as a deep learning baseline, along with two
other types of baseline commonly used in numerical weather prediction introduced below.

Directions on how to improve on that baseline are given by recent publications. Weyn et al.(Weyn, Durran, and Caruana, n.d.), in addition to applying
more geometrically-adequate spatial preprocessing, use a U-Net-based architecture instead of a plain convnet. Rasp and Thuerey
(Rasp and Thuerey 2020), building on a fully convolutional, high-capacity ResNet architecture, add a key new procedural ingredient:
pre-training on climate models. With their method, they are able to not just compete with physical models, but also, show
evidence of the network learning about physical structure and dependencies. Unfortunately, compute facilities of this order
are not available to the average individual, which is why we’ll content ourselves with demonstrating a simple toy model.
Still, having seen a simple model in action, as well as the type of data it works on, should help a lot in understanding how
DL can be used for weather prediction.


Weatherbench was explicitly created as a benchmark dataset and thus, as is
common for this species, hides a lot of preprocessing and standardization effort from the user. Atmospheric data are available
on an hourly basis, ranging from 1979 to 2018, at different spatial resolutions. Depending on resolution, there are about 15
to 20 measured variables, including temperature, geopotential, wind speed, and humidity. Of these variables, some are
available at several pressure levels. Thus, our example makes use of a small subset of available “channels.” To save storage,
network and computational resources, it also operates at the smallest available resolution.

This post is accompanied by executable code on Google
, which should not just
render unnecessary any copy-pasting of code snippets but also, allow for uncomplicated modification and experimentation.

To read in and extract the data, stored as NetCDF files, we use
tidync, a high-level package built on top of
ncdf4 and RNetCDF. Otherwise,
availability of the usual “TensorFlow family” as well as a subset of tidyverse packages is assumed.

As already alluded to, our example makes use of two spatio-temporal series: 500hPa geopotential and 850hPa temperature. The
following commands will download and unpack the respective sets of by-year files, for a spatial resolution of 5.625 degrees:

unzip("", exdir = "temperature_850")

unzip("", exdir = "geopotential_500")

Inspecting one of those files’ contents, we see that its data array is structured along three dimensions, longitude (64
different values), latitude (32) and time (8760). The data itself is z, the geopotential.

tidync("geopotential_500/") %>% hyper_array()
Class: tidync_data (list of tidync data arrays)
Variables (1): 'z'
Dimension (3): lon,lat,time (64, 32, 8760)
Source: /[...]/geopotential_500/

Extraction of the data array is as easy as telling tidync to read the first in the list of arrays:

z500_2015 <- (tidync("geopotential_500/") %>%

[1] 64 32 8760

While we delegate further introduction to tidync to a comprehensive blog
on the ROpenSci website, let’s at least look at a quick visualization, for
which we pick the very first time point. (Extraction and visualization code is analogous for 850hPa temperature.)

image(z500_2015[ , , 1],
      col = hcl.colors(20, "viridis"), # for temperature, the color scheme used is YlOrRd 
      xaxt = 'n',
      yaxt = 'n',
      main = "500hPa geopotential"

The maps show how pressure and temperature strongly depend on latitude. Furthermore, it’s easy to spot the atmospheric

Spatial distribution of 500hPa geopotential and 850 hPa temperature for 2015/01/01 0:00h.

Figure 1: Spatial distribution of 500hPa geopotential and 850 hPa temperature for 2015/01/01 0:00h.

For training, validation and testing, we choose consecutive years: 2015, 2016, and 2017, respectively.

z500_train <- (tidync("geopotential_500/") %>% hyper_array())[[1]]

t850_train <- (tidync("temperature_850/") %>% hyper_array())[[1]]

z500_valid <- (tidync("geopotential_500/") %>% hyper_array())[[1]]

t850_valid <- (tidync("temperature_850/") %>% hyper_array())[[1]]

z500_test <- (tidync("geopotential_500/") %>% hyper_array())[[1]]

t850_test <- (tidync("temperature_850/") %>% hyper_array())[[1]]

Since geopotential and temperature will be treated as channels, we concatenate the corresponding arrays. To transform the data
into the format needed for images, a permutation is necessary:

train_all <- abind::abind(z500_train, t850_train, along = 4)
train_all <- aperm(train_all, perm = c(3, 2, 1, 4))
[1] 8760 32 64 2

All data will be standardized according to mean and standard deviation as obtained from the training set:

level_means <- apply(train_all, 4, mean)
level_sds <- apply(train_all, 4, sd)

round(level_means, 2)
54124.91  274.8

In words, the mean geopotential height (see footnote 5 for more on this term), as measured at an isobaric surface of 500hPa,
amounts to about 5400 metres, while the mean temperature at the 850hPa level approximates 275 Kelvin (about 2 degrees

train <- train_all
train[, , , 1] <- (train[, , , 1] - level_means[1]) / level_sds[1]
train[, , , 2] <- (train[, , , 2] - level_means[2]) / level_sds[2]

valid_all <- abind::abind(z500_valid, t850_valid, along = 4)
valid_all <- aperm(valid_all, perm = c(3, 2, 1, 4))

valid <- valid_all
valid[, , , 1] <- (valid[, , , 1] - level_means[1]) / level_sds[1]
valid[, , , 2] <- (valid[, , , 2] - level_means[2]) / level_sds[2]

test_all <- abind::abind(z500_test, t850_test, along = 4)
test_all <- aperm(test_all, perm = c(3, 2, 1, 4))

test <- test_all
test[, , , 1] <- (test[, , , 1] - level_means[1]) / level_sds[1]
test[, , , 2] <- (test[, , , 2] - level_means[2]) / level_sds[2]

We’ll attempt to predict three days ahead.

Now all that remains to be done is construct the actual datasets.

batch_size <- 32

train_x <- train %>%
  tensor_slices_dataset() %>%
  dataset_take(dim(train)[1] - lead_time)

train_y <- train %>%
  tensor_slices_dataset() %>%

train_ds <- zip_datasets(train_x, train_y) %>%
  dataset_shuffle(buffer_size = dim(train)[1] - lead_time) %>%
  dataset_batch(batch_size = batch_size, drop_remainder = TRUE)

valid_x <- valid %>%
  tensor_slices_dataset() %>%
  dataset_take(dim(valid)[1] - lead_time)

valid_y <- valid %>%
  tensor_slices_dataset() %>%

valid_ds <- zip_datasets(valid_x, valid_y) %>%
  dataset_batch(batch_size = batch_size, drop_remainder = TRUE)

test_x <- test %>%
  tensor_slices_dataset() %>%
  dataset_take(dim(test)[1] - lead_time)

test_y <- test %>%
  tensor_slices_dataset() %>%

test_ds <- zip_datasets(test_x, test_y) %>%
  dataset_batch(batch_size = batch_size, drop_remainder = TRUE)

Let’s proceed to defining the model.

Basic CNN with periodic convolutions

The model is a straightforward convnet, with one exception: Instead of plain convolutions, it uses slightly more sophisticated
ones that “wrap around” longitudinally.

periodic_padding_2d <- function(pad_width,
                                name = NULL) {
  keras_model_custom(name = name, function(self) {
    self$pad_width <- pad_width
    function (x, mask = NULL) {
      x <- if (self$pad_width == 0) {
      } else {
        lon_dim <- dim(x)[3]
        pad_width <- tf$cast(self$pad_width, tf$int32)
        # wrap around for longitude
        tf$concat(list(x[, ,-pad_width:lon_dim,],
                       x[, , 1:pad_width,]),
                  axis = 2L) %>%
            list(0L, 0L),
            # zero-pad for latitude
            list(pad_width, pad_width),
            list(0L, 0L),
            list(0L, 0L)

periodic_conv_2d <- function(filters,
                             name = NULL) {
  keras_model_custom(name = name, function(self) {
    self$padding <- periodic_padding_2d(pad_width = (kernel_size - 1) / 2)
    self$conv <-
      layer_conv_2d(filters = filters,
                    kernel_size = kernel_size,
                    padding = 'valid')
    function (x, mask = NULL) {
      x %>% self$padding() %>% self$conv()

For our purposes of establishing a deep-learning baseline that is fast to train, CNN architecture and parameter defaults are
chosen to be simple and moderate, respectively:

periodic_cnn <- function(filters = c(64, 64, 64, 64, 2),
                         kernel_size = c(5, 5, 5, 5, 5),
                         dropout = rep(0.2, 5),
                         name = NULL) {
  keras_model_custom(name = name, function(self) {
    self$conv1 <-
      periodic_conv_2d(filters = filters[1], kernel_size = kernel_size[1])
    self$act1 <- layer_activation_leaky_relu()
    self$drop1 <- layer_dropout(rate = dropout[1])
    self$conv2 <-
      periodic_conv_2d(filters = filters[2], kernel_size = kernel_size[2])
    self$act2 <- layer_activation_leaky_relu()
    self$drop2 <- layer_dropout(rate =dropout[2])
    self$conv3 <-
      periodic_conv_2d(filters = filters[3], kernel_size = kernel_size[3])
    self$act3 <- layer_activation_leaky_relu()
    self$drop3 <- layer_dropout(rate = dropout[3])
    self$conv4 <-
      periodic_conv_2d(filters = filters[4], kernel_size = kernel_size[4])
    self$act4 <- layer_activation_leaky_relu()
    self$drop4 <- layer_dropout(rate = dropout[4])
    self$conv5 <-
      periodic_conv_2d(filters = filters[5], kernel_size = kernel_size[5])
    function (x, mask = NULL) {
      x %>%
        self$conv1() %>%
        self$act1() %>%
        self$drop1() %>%
        self$conv2() %>%
        self$act2() %>%
        self$drop2() %>%
        self$conv3() %>%
        self$act3() %>%
        self$drop3() %>%
        self$conv4() %>%
        self$act4() %>%
        self$drop4() %>%

model <- periodic_cnn()


In that same spirit of “default-ness,” we train with MSE loss and Adam optimizer.

loss <- tf$keras$losses$MeanSquaredError(reduction = tf$keras$losses$Reduction$SUM)
optimizer <- optimizer_adam()

train_loss <- tf$keras$metrics$Mean(name='train_loss')

valid_loss <- tf$keras$metrics$Mean(name='test_loss')

train_step <- function(train_batch) {

  with (tf$GradientTape() %as% tape, {
    predictions <- model(train_batch[[1]])
    l <- loss(train_batch[[2]], predictions)

  gradients <- tape$gradient(l, model$trainable_variables)
    gradients, model$trainable_variables



valid_step <- function(valid_batch) {
  predictions <- model(valid_batch[[1]])
  l <- loss(valid_batch[[2]], predictions)

training_loop <- tf_function(autograph(function(train_ds, valid_ds, epoch) {
  for (train_batch in train_ds) {
  for (valid_batch in valid_ds) {
  tf$print("MSE: train: ", train_loss$result(), ", validation: ", valid_loss$result()) 

Depicted graphically, we see that the model trains well, but extrapolation does not surpass a certain threshold (which is
reached early, after training for just two epochs).

MSE per epoch on training and validation sets.

Figure 2: MSE per epoch on training and validation sets.

This is not too surprising though, given the model’s architectural simplicity and modest size.


Here, we first present two other baselines, which – given a highly complex and chaotic system like the atmosphere – may
sound irritatingly simple and yet, be pretty hard to beat. The metric used for comparison is latitudinally weighted
root-mean-square error
. Latitudinal weighting up-weights the lower latitudes and down-weights the upper ones.

deg2rad <- function(d) {
  (d / 180) * pi

lats <- tidync("geopotential_500/")$transforms$lat %>%
  select(lat) %>%

lat_weights <- cos(deg2rad(lats))
lat_weights <- lat_weights / mean(lat_weights)

weighted_rmse <- function(forecast, ground_truth) {
  error <- (forecast - ground_truth) ^ 2
  for (i in seq_along(lat_weights)) {
    error[, i, ,] <- error[, i, ,] * lat_weights[i]
  apply(error, 4, mean) %>% sqrt()

Baseline 1: Weekly climatology

In general, climatology refers to long-term averages computed over defined time ranges. Here, we first calculate weekly
averages based on the training set. These averages are then used to forecast the variables in question for the time period
used as test set.

Step one makes use of tidync, ncmeta, RNetCDF and lubridate to compute weekly averages for 2015, following the ISO
week date system

train_file <- "geopotential_500/"

times_train <- (tidync(train_file) %>% activate("D2") %>% hyper_array())$time

time_unit_train <- ncmeta::nc_atts(train_file, "time") %>%
  tidyr::unnest(cols = c(value)) %>%
  dplyr::filter(name == "units")

time_parts_train <-$value, times_train)

iso_train <- ISOdate(
  time_parts_train[, "year"],
  time_parts_train[, "month"],
  time_parts_train[, "day"],
  time_parts_train[, "hour"],
  time_parts_train[, "minute"],
  time_parts_train[, "second"]

isoweeks_train <- map(iso_train, isoweek) %>% unlist()

train_by_week <- apply(train_all, c(2, 3, 4), function(x) {
  tapply(x, isoweeks_train, function(y) {

53 32 64 2

Step two then runs through the test set, mapping dates to corresponding ISO weeks and associating the weekly averages from the
training set:

test_file <- "geopotential_500/"

times_test <- (tidync(test_file) %>% activate("D2") %>% hyper_array())$time

time_unit_test <- ncmeta::nc_atts(test_file, "time") %>%
  tidyr::unnest(cols = c(value)) %>%
  dplyr::filter(name == "units")

time_parts_test <-$value, times_test)

iso_test <- ISOdate(
  time_parts_test[, "year"],
  time_parts_test[, "month"],
  time_parts_test[, "day"],
  time_parts_test[, "hour"],
  time_parts_test[, "minute"],
  time_parts_test[, "second"]

isoweeks_test <- map(iso_test, isoweek) %>% unlist()

climatology_forecast <- test_all

for (i in 1:dim(climatology_forecast)[1]) {
  week <- isoweeks_test[i]
  lookup <- train_by_week[week, , , ]
  climatology_forecast[i, , ,] <- lookup

For this baseline, the latitudinally-weighted RMSE amounts to roughly 975 for geopotential and 4 for temperature.

wrmse <- weighted_rmse(climatology_forecast, test_all)
round(wrmse, 2)
974.50   4.09

Baseline 2: Persistence forecast

The second baseline commonly used makes a straightforward assumption: Tomorrow’s weather is today’s weather, or, in our case:
In three days, things will be just like they are now.

Computation for this metric is almost a one-liner. And as it turns out, for the given lead time (three days), performance is
not too dissimilar from obtained by means of weekly climatology:

persistence_forecast <- test_all[1:(dim(test_all)[1] - lead_time), , ,]

test_period <- test_all[(lead_time + 1):dim(test_all)[1], , ,]

wrmse <- weighted_rmse(persistence_forecast, test_period)

round(wrmse, 2)
937.55  4.31

Baseline 3: Simple convnet

How does the simple deep learning model stack up against those two?

To answer that question, we first need to obtain predictions on the test set.

test_wrmses <- data.frame()

test_loss <- tf$keras$metrics$Mean(name = 'test_loss')

test_step <- function(test_batch, batch_index) {
  predictions <- model(test_batch[[1]])
  l <- loss(test_batch[[2]], predictions)
  predictions <- predictions %>% as.array()
  predictions[, , , 1] <- predictions[, , , 1] * level_sds[1] + level_means[1]
  predictions[, , , 2] <- predictions[, , , 2] * level_sds[2] + level_means[2]
  wrmse <- weighted_rmse(predictions, test_all[batch_index:(batch_index + 31), , ,])
  test_wrmses <<- test_wrmses %>% bind_rows(c(z = wrmse[1], temp = wrmse[2]))


test_iterator <- as_iterator(test_ds)

batch_index <- 0
while (TRUE) {
  test_batch <- test_iterator %>% iter_next()
  if (is.null(test_batch))
  batch_index <- batch_index + 1
  test_step(test_batch, as.integer(batch_index))

test_loss$result() %>% as.numeric()

Thus, average loss on the test set parallels that seen on the validation set. As to latitudinally weighted RMSE, it turns out
to be higher for the DL baseline than for the other two:

      z    temp 
1521.47    7.70 


At first glance, seeing the DL baseline perform worse than the others might feel anticlimactic. But if you think about it,
there is no need to be disappointed.

For one, given the enormous complexity of the task, these heuristics are not as easy to outsmart. Take persistence: Depending
on lead time – how far into the future we’re forecasting – the wisest guess may actually be that everything will stay the
same. What would you guess the weather will look like in five minutes? — Same with weekly climatology: Looking back at how
warm it was, at a given location, that same week two years ago, does not in general sound like a bad strategy.

Second, the DL baseline shown is as basic as it can get, architecture- as well as parameter-wise. More sophisticated and
powerful architectures have been developed that not just by far surpass the baselines, but can even compete with physical
models (cf. especially Rasp and Thuerey (Rasp and Thuerey 2020) already mentioned above). Unfortunately, models like that need to be
trained on a lot of data.

However, other weather-related applications (other than medium-range forecasting, that is) may be more in reach for
individuals interested in the topic. For those, we hope we have given a useful introduction. Thanks for reading!

Rasp, Stephan, Peter D. Dueben, Sebastian Scher, Jonathan A. Weyn, Soukayna Mouatadid, and Nils Thuerey. 2020. WeatherBench: A benchmark dataset for data-driven weather forecasting.” arXiv e-Prints, February, arXiv:2002.00469.
Rasp, Stephan, and Nils Thuerey. 2020. “Purely Data-Driven Medium-Range Weather Forecasting Achieves Comparable Skill to Physical Models at Similar Resolution.”
Weyn, Jonathan A., Dale R. Durran, and Rich Caruana. n.d. “Improving Data-Driven Global Weather Prediction Using Deep Convolutional Neural Networks on a Cubed Sphere.” Journal of Advances in Modeling Earth Systems n/a (n/a): e2020MS002109.

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