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by
05 June 2013
Reading the signs

Reading the signs

In a country where the rain is plentiful and a sunny day can make headline news – the weather is never far away from conversation.

But even so, it still comes as something of a surprise when Alex Hill, who has been with the Met Office since starting as a forecaster in Glasgow nearly 40 years ago, says, slightly tonguein- cheek, “there is nothing you do, day or night, that we don’t have something to do with.”

While the public face of the Met Office, the UK’s national weather service dating back more than 150 years, is still the map on a TV screen dotted with sunny spells and rainclouds, the organisation has had an ever-expanding role, taking on board knowledge and giving out advice to ensure towns and villages are resilient against floods and preparing for climate change.

Hill said: “You use weather forecasts without even thinking about it, – everything from electricity generation and gas – the amount of gas in the pipes is dependent on the weather – transport, 60 per cent of aircraft fly on a Met Office forecast, it goes on and on; there’s almost nothing you can think of that somewhere along the line doesn’t have a weather forecast involved in it.”

First formed as the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade, by Vice Admiral Robert Fitzroy in 1854 to collect weather data at sea with the aim of preventing shipwrecks, it was originally manned by just four people but has grown to employ more than 500 research scientists among 1,800-plus staff at more than 60 locations across the world – providing more than 10 million weather observations and using computer modelling, creating 3,000 forecasts and briefings every day.

This expansion came about as more and more trades and services saw the benefits detailed weather forecasts could bring, including shipping, the military and the oil industry.

This last one is particularly relevant, as the Met Office has recently had to expand its operations in the Granite City and move into new offices, it has had a presence in Aberdeen for more than 70 years and the new premises at Lord Cullen House were opened in April by chief scientist Muffy Calder.

The city’s pivotal role in the oil and gas industry, fishing and renewables, means the office has a “global reach”, as well as serving as back-up for the headquarters in Exeter.

“Aberdeen is unique in a sense within the Met Office,” says Hill, “it is a marine centre of excellence and a global centre for producing marine forecasts, whether it’s a ship, oil rig or platform.

“Most of the people up there are quite used to dealing just as easily with the South China Sea as with the North Sea. We send forecasters to all parts of the world.”

Hill describes the Aberdeen office as very much the business side of the operation, especially in the growing field of renewables where it has found itself with a key role in where wind farms and other renewable energy sources can be sited – based on vital information on where the wind is blowing and how consistently.

Hill’s career with the Met Office has included periods as airport observer and aviation forecaster, as well as ITV’s first national forecaster in the 1980s. The broadcasts, he says, featured many firsts, the first sponsored weather forecast in the UK and the first to feature an animated display.

In setting up, the weather team took over the ITN executive dining room at the HQ in Oxford Street.

The pressure on the service as it’s grown has increased, in 2009 there was a media outcry when the Met Office-predicted “barbecue summer” of soaring temperatures failed to materialise and last year the organisation was threatened by a Devon businessman for ‘pessimistic’ predictions of Bank Holiday weather, claiming it was damaging the local economy. It shows, perhaps, that people are expecting more from the Met Office.

Hill agrees, but says: “I find it quite amusing in some ways, because actually, we’re, frankly, so good at it, when it does go wrong, and occasionally it does, let’s be honest, there may be times when we’re not quite as precise as we would like to be – it comes as a shock to people.” He adds: “It’s important to recognise that if you’re looking at a totally automated product, you’re not going to get the same level of precision as spending five minutes, 10 minutes, half an hour talking to a forecaster who can take you through all the details.

“If you’ve got somebody on a TV programme and they maybe have one and a half minutes to get across 24 to 48 hours’ worth of weather for the entire country, you’re not going to get every village and hamlet spot on, you don’t even have the time to talk about it.

“The skill of a TV broadcaster is to make sure that the two facts you expect to get across are the two facts that you want people to remember, because that’s what we all will remember.”

Part of how the Met Office has changed its role over the years is in relation to what involvement it has with the weather. Far from simply passing on the message that there can be heavy snow expected, or a lot of rain, it is a far more integral part of ensuring that the vital components needed to keep the country running, such as transport networks, can in fact be kept going.

In 2011 the Scottish Flood Forecasting Service was formed with the Met Office, alongside the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, bringing hydrologists and forecasters together to give better advice and warnings to the emergency services and other agencies.

Officials based at the Edinburgh office are included in talks in the Scottish Government’s resilience room at St Andrew’s House, and will assemble whenever a major weather event takes place. As well as the serious floods that have been a regular occurrence over the last few winters in areas like Stonehaven in the North East of Scotland, this has also included the response to the ash cloud produced by the eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 that halted flights both in and out of the Scotland.

Hill said: “When I first started weather forecasting in Glasgow, all you did was send out a warning. You would send out a warning that would go to the BBC or STV and say, there’s going to be snow tonight. But there was no real mention or thought around the impact of weather.

“Increasingly since that time, it’s become more and more obvious, both to ourselves and to our operating partners – Transport Scotland and everybody else – that actually, the impact is something we need to have a better handle on. It’s that very cooperative nature between ourselves and the different responders that really has made a huge difference over the last three or four years. People have really woken up to the fact that a good forecast means you can take action and you can save lives, basically – and that’s what we try and do.”

The pressure over the weather can boil over into the political. In 2010, Scotland’s busiest road, the M8, was closed for two days amid freezing temperatures, which culminated in the resignation of the then Transport and Environment Minister, Stewart Stevenson, following criticism of his handling of the travel chaos.

He says: “Part of my job anyway is dealing with these situations, I have seen Mr Stevenson since then and had several chats with him, I talk to his replacement, Paul Wheelhouse, quite regularly.

There is this constant dialogue going on, making sure that ministers, politicians, everyone really understands the strengths and also the limitations of the information that they’re getting.

“I’m not going to be able to tell you that on the 25th August 2025 it will be raining in Glasgow, it’s just not possible. But as you get closer and closer to an event that’s going to have a major impact, there is the increasing precision along the line. Say, in 48 hours’ time, I say there’s going to be a storm in Western Scotland, in 24-hours’ time I’ll be able to say perhaps there’s going to be a storm in Argyll, and as you get closer to the event, you can narrow both the location and the timing.

“It’s getting that message across to people, so that people are reacting at the right times, in the right places.”

One of the major changes with the Met Office’s work has been on climate change. The Hadley Centre was set up in 1990 and opened by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and has been responsible for guidance on the science behind climate change, funded mainly from the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Its climate projections were the basis for the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change.

Its last major piece of work was the UK Climate Projections 2009 (UKCP09) which set out data designed to help people plan how to adapt to a changing climate, such as rising sea levels.

But the involvement in the climate change debate has brought about more evidence of the increased pressure it is under, and the organisation was forced to issue a point-by-point rebuttal to the writer and climate sceptic James Delingpole’s assertions earlier this year, after he had accused it of conceding there was no evidence for climate change.

‘Cherry-picking’ Met Office data can be extrapolated to show that two years taken a decade apart had seen no change, five-year and 10-year averages show that the UK has been getting steadily warmer and he adds: “The evidence is that actually, the world is getting warmer; the fact that a tiny wee place like Scotland has a cold winter is completely irrelevant to what is a global phenomenon, We are so small, frankly. What happens in the UK is not at all indicative of what happens around the world.” But does this questioning of the Met Office data damage its reputation? Hill doesn’t think so.

“From my point of view, good science is built on scepticism. The more people ask questions, the harder you have to think and the better you have to work – that to me seems the very basis of improving science and knowledge and understanding, is to question constantly,” he says.

“There’s a difference between questioning and denying. The world is not flat despite what some people would want to say.” He says that in the scientific community there is scepticism, but very little denial.

“There are arguments over how far it’s going to go, there are arguments over its overall impact,” he says. “But very few of them say it’s not human induced.”

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