Changing weather patterns mean meteorology is more important than ever

March 24, 2014

–Julian Hunt is former Director-General of the UK Met Office, and a Visiting Professor at Delft University of Technology. The opinions expressed are his own.–

Since the 1990s, the United Kingdom has celebrated National Science and Engineering Week every year to coincide with World Meteorological Day (which this year is Sunday 23 March). This is fitting, given that meteorologists, whose original interest was more in the effects of outer space (especially meteors and lightning) than weather, work with scientists and engineers ever more closely, both in the use of modern measurement techniques and in making conceptual advances in mathematics and physics.

Some of the first applications of telegraph in the 1850s, radio around 1910 and satellites in the 1960s were for transmitting and measuring weather data. The Oxford University and Harwell teams designed and installed some of the earliest micro-wave temperature instruments on U.S. Tiros satellites.

Although Lee Fry Richardson’s idea of numerical weather forecasting began in the 1920s with great inaccuracies, these led to Edward Norton Lorenz’s understanding of chaos in the 1960s and modern mathematical methods for minimising errors and making best of weather data.

In the last decade, new instruments such as the UCL-led Cryosat satellite, are no longer passive receivers of data, but also send penetrating radar signals downwards that can track arctic ice, flood waters and the surface layers of the oceans.

Measurements of lightning and the fluctuations in the upper atmosphere that used to be applied mainly to radio communication are now used to study dynamic connections with weather and the upper ocean. A number of Russian institutes, and in the Netherlands Delft University of Technology, are now applying this approach for detecting and making predictions of earth tremors and even earthquakes.

The UK Met Office, which in 2014 will be installing one of the largest computers in Europe, collaborates with other Met services across the world, to make weather predictions up to 10 days ahead with more detail than ever before.

The most severe tests of the system of measurements, computation, forecasting (which means assessing likely accuracy) and communication to users, arise in extreme conditions.  This year the systems succeeded in giving reliable forecasts in Europe of high winds, unprecedented periods of rain, and exceptional waves.

The unusual features of these conditions needed new explanations by meteorologists, which are now shared with the public and politicians as soon as they emerge from the lab. Jet streams and polar vortices add to the familiar stress on weather fronts: lows and highs.

As well as other even more severe storms around the world with unusual features, such as the disastrous typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last November, other unusual weather events were associated with very low wind speeds, such as the extended periods when atmospheric pollution in Asian cities exceeded the international health standards by 10 to 20 times.

Predictions are now reverting to conditions of the 1950s and 1960s when concentrations of air-borne particles were so high that the meteorology in the lower atmosphere is changed; the sunlight does not penetrate; there is less upward mixing and concentrations keep increasing. Meteorologists are working with chemists and health specialists to help identify the sources of pollution, such as power plants, urban traffic, shipping, and forest fires, how the pollutants react in the atmosphere, and their health impacts.

Last month, legislators from more than 50 countries met in the U.S. Senate with scientific experts and UN officials to review steps being taken in 66 countries (which collectively account for around 90% of global carbon emissions) where there is now legislation and regulation aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. U.S. Senator Markey explained how in the U.S., regulations and new technologies should lead to reduced emissions from efficient transportation and reduced reliance on coal.

However, there are disagreements between countries about which technologies are appropriate and safe; the United Kingdom is pushing ahead with research on all aspects of low carbon energy systems including nuclear fission and fusion, while other countries are focusing on an eclectic mix of highly polluting coal and non-polluting renewables.

It was impressive to hear politicians grilling scientists from the Royal Society and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences about likely changes to the climate in their own countries caused by these emissions, and hearing their concerns about the severe impacts from storms, droughts and high temperatures that they are already experiencing.

Just after this meeting, new weather reports from the eastern Pacific indicated that the El Nino pattern of higher surface temperatures could be returning within the next year to add to the concerns of in tropical regions.

These important debates underline exactly why World Meteorological Day and National Science and Engineering Week must be occasions for reflection on the future. Indeed, meteorology is now more important than ever in thinking through the sometimes difficult decisions that will be needed to plan for the changing weather patterns, and extreme conditions, we face in coming decades.

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