Weather forecasters have a varied and challenging career. This article outlines a typical day of a UK forecaster at the Environmental Monitoring And Response Centre, known as the “EMARC Desk” of the UK Met Office.
Since this article was written, the centre has found itself fully involved in the international emergency response following the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident in Japan. Eight WMO regional centres around the world are providing specialized atmospheric calculations and monitoring meteorological conditions that are important to the movement of airborne radioactivity around the globe. While three such centres in Asia are providing the main support to the emergency response, the Met Office in Exeter, and the remaining four centres are also supporting the response witih information and predictions to authorized users in other regions of the world.
The EMARC centre was set up in 1999 to provide short-notice specialist forecasts to the UK emergency services and other government departments, as well as to the international community. A forecaster is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It enables the Met Office to provide a quick response to customers requiring forecast information, helping them deal with a variety of environmental incidents.
Here is a typical winter day on forecasting bench, as seen through the eyes Robin Downton, a forecaster working for the centre with many years of experience.
It is 7:25 in the morning and Robin arrives in the Operations Centre of the UK Met Office in Exeter, to begin his forecasting shift. This is the first of four, twelve-hour shifts that Robin will work over the next two days and two nights. He is anticipating a busy run of shifts because the recent weather in the UK has been particularly difficult, with deep snow and widespread ice. In addition, there are ongoing incidents to which the centre is responding, as well as scheduled emergency response exercises.
Robin takes his handover from the night duty forecaster and settles down in his seat by 7:35, ready to begin his tasks. As well as giving an overview of the weather, the night forecaster also informed Robin that volcanic activity on Iceland was minimal. (The forecasters at the centre also operate under another name – the London Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre, and were responsible for the Volcanic Ash plume guidance issued during the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010.) The London centre and the Iceland Met Office continue to coordinate to ensure that both are well informed about any volcanic activity on Iceland.
The forecasting bench is part of the Public Weather Service of the UK Met Office Operations Centre, and Robin works closely with his colleagues dealing with land and marine forecasts during the shift, as well as forecasters in the adjacent guidance unit, and colleagues in aviation and commercial units.
Robin has access to a suite of Numerical Weather Prediction output, ranging from the Global Model with its 25km resolution to the UK-wide 1.5km resolution model, as well as diagnostic packages. External and in-house ensemble data are also available, using a recently-introduced weather visualization tool.
For the first few hours of his shift, Robin produces forecasts for various customers, both Public Weather Services and Government Services. The products are varied, ranging from forecasts of average temperature across the UK up to seven days ahead to an indication of wind strength at certain sites around the country. He also provides input into Public Weather Service forecasts for the general public and mountain users, and input into frontal analyses of the UK each hour.
At 11:15 the “emergency” telephone rings. This is a dedicated line used by Emergency Responders in the UK to request assistance when a pollutant is released into the atmosphere. Robin writes down the relevant details from the caller, including the exact location of the release, information about the local weather that may have been observed and the contact details for the caller. He then accesses the Web-based input screen for the Met Office’s dedicated atmospheric dispersion model. Within three minutes Robin is able to view a plume, superimposed onto a detailed map of the local area, showing the spread of the pollutant from the release point. He also produces a text-based forecast with details of other important factors like atmospheric stability, along with timings for change of wind direction. Both products (known as CHEMET, or CHEmical Meteorology) are then issued to the Emergency Service within 15 minutes of the call being made. They will then be able to use this CHEMET product to help decide the best location from which to approach the incident. In the event that a dangerous chemical has been released, CHEMET can be used to determine which households may need to be evacuated.
FOR EXAMPLE PURPOSES ONLY – NOT TO BE USED OPERATIONALLY
The atmospheric dispersion model gives the UK Met Office the capability to respond to all atmospheric pollutant events, small and large. It is used not only for local scale releases, such as fires and chemical spills, but also to model the dispersion of volcanic ash and radiological releases over intercontinental distances, as well as biological releases such as blue tongue disease and foot and mouth disease.
At 14:10, Robin takes part in the main teleconference with many other forecasters, including the Chief Forecaster in the UK Met Office. This is the forum where the weather “story” is discussed between the forecasters and agreement is reached, led by the Chief Forecaster, on what the meteorological evolution will be during the day and over the next five days. Representatives from media outlets such as the BBC take part, so that television and radio weather broadcasts communicate a consistent message with the correct emphasis.
During the afternoon, Robin continues to produce forecasts for customers, including advice on the possible development of tropical storms around the globe. This advice will be sent to Regional Specialized Meteorological Centres responsible for tropical cyclone prediction, providing them with an indication of how the UK Global model is handling a particular storm. This helps regional centres provide their own guidance on the track that a storm may take.
By 19:15, Robin has completed all of the daily tasks, responded to more emergency telephone calls during the afternoon and answered ad-hoc enquiries from customers. All that remains to be done is to prepare for the handover to the night shift forecaster who is expected to arrive within five minutes. In a little over 12 hours time, Robin will be back to work a similar shift once again. The nature of the work means that the forecaster can never be sure what to expect during a shift. A response can be requested for an atmospheric pollutant emergency at any time. It is this fact that makes working on the forecasting bench so worthwhile.