From Ship to Shore: Bringing Real-time Weather into the Classroom

by Wilfried Jacobs and Peter Schmitt1

An important component of the Global Framework for Climate Services is the development of weather and climate scientific skills. In order to deliver effective meteorological and climatological services, all countries need well-trained professionals. The honing of professional skills in its staff is the goal of Deutscher Wetterdienst, the Meteorological Training and Conference Centre of the German Meteorological Service in Langen. One of its most recent initiatives offers students a unique opportunity to gain experience in forecasting and research by bringing real-time weather into the classroom.

Seagoing vessels have long been used by weather services and scientific researchers to gain insight into oceanic weather phenomena, climatic change and the interaction between the atmosphere and oceans. The vessels may only cover a small area compared to the vastness of the oceans but each delivers a wide range of data: Observations and measurements of weather and oceanographic parameters, radio soundings, weather reports and forecasts, written documentations of specific weather phenomena and images. This comprehensive data can be linked to satellite products and numerical weather prediction output to give a more encompassing view of the atmosphere at any one time. Yet, this type of investigation is only open to the most highly qualified meteorologists as it demands mental dexterity to assay data from multiple sources as well as experience with a wide variety of analytical tools. Until now, it was also difficult for German students to gain the experience required as surface ocean observations were not readily available to them.

Since 2011 Deutscher Wetterdienst students have been following the voyage of Polarstern, a research and resupply vessel that traces a route from Bremerhaven, Germany, to Antarctica or the Arctic every year. Meteorologists aboard ship provide observations as well as written and visual commentary on meteorological and oceanographic conditions throughout the voyage. This real-time information is transmitted to the EUMeTrain2 Website where students monitoring the progress of the ship – using synoptic analysis, satellite imagery and numerical model outputs, including wave models – can access it. Students can thus visualize the impacts the various weather systems traversed have on the ship and gain first-hand knowledge of how weather conditions change during the ship’s journey.

Students learn a lot from these data and improve their skills in climatology and oceanography, the interpretation of satellite images, radio soundings, synoptic observations and the use of numerical weather prediction products. The programme also improves their transferable (soft) skills, teaching them how to follow a routine, to communicate with other students and to exchange and learn from experience.

The training project is the result of coordinated efforts between Deutscher Wetterdienst, the Alfred-Wegner-Institute (owner of the ship), Instituto Português do Mar e da Atmosfera (I.P. Portugal) (processer of the data from the JASON satellite) and EUMeTrain. The satellite imagery is coordinated by Meteosat (polar meteorological satellites operated by EUMETSAT), NOAA (the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), MetOp (Meteorological Operational satellite) and JASON, a satellite oceanography mission that monitors global ocean circulation and wave heights.

The German vessel “Polarstern” in the Atka-Bay, Antarctica

Polarstern ship

Anchor’s away

The project was an immediate success, garnering the enthusiasm of students and researchers alike. Thus in April 2012, the project partners decided to increase its scope by adding the commentary in English, opening the way for students from other National Meteorological and Hydrological Services training centres to join their German counterparts. When Polarstern set a course from Punta Arenas, Chile, back to Bremerhaven from 11 April to 15 May, meteorological students from around the world could follow the ship’s progress and get first-hand reports of atmospheric and oceanographic conditions in English.

For example, in the period from 30 April to 1 May, the ship crossed an area of dust near the Cape Verde Islands. The violet to pink areas in the satellite imagery seen by the students in Langen and other National Meteorological and Hydrological Services training centres indicated that there was dust near the ship. The corresponding surface pressure field showed them that the Southeast trade wind had transported the dust from the Sahara to the ship. The students could easily relate this information in real-time with the onboard data: On the EUMeTrain site, they could click on “Polarstern”, opening a page where the temperatures, speed and direction of the wind, diverse satellite imagery, the weather report and onboard photos could all be consulted.

Students in the training centre in Langen discuss Polarstern’s situation 30 April 2012 when it crossed a dust cloud (indicated by violet to pinkish area in the satellite image).


The data and materials collected by the meteorologists and researchers during the voyage will remain available for students to consult on the EUMeTrain server at any time.

A number of research institutions and organizations have expressed interest in the project: Met Office College, United Kingdom, South African Weather Service, University of the Free State, South Africa, Bureau of Meteorology, Australia, Instituto de Ciências Atmosféricas (ICAT), Brazil, Departamento de Ciencias de la Atmósfera y los Océanos (UBA), Argentina, Lithuanian Hydrometeorological Service, Lithuania, and I.P., Portugal.

Improving service

Training is, and will continue to be, of utmost importance to Deutscher Wetterdienst.3 Together with its partners, Deutscher Wetterdienst aims to be at the forefront of training for meteorologists in areas such as meeting the imminent deadline for competency standards for all aeronautical weather forecasters and observers (1 December 2013); developing the human capacity needed in the Global Framework for Climate Services such as reviewing the education qualifications, skill requirements and job training required for climate specialists; and, ongoing support for disaster risk reduction activities.

Projects such as the Polarstern show that it is possible to link operational work (even remote operational work) to classroom activities to enable trainees to build a more complete understanding of what their job entails and how their work impacts upon the daily lives of people and activities.

1 Wilfried Jacobs and Peter Schmitt, Deutscher Wetterdienst, Bildungs- und Tagungszentrum, Am DFS-Campus 4, D-63225 Langen, e-mail: wilfried.jacobs[at] and peter.schmitt[at], respectively)

2 An international meteorological training project sponsored by EUMETSAT (European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites)

3 If you are interested in participating in the virtual voyage for the 2012/2013 Southern Summer season visit and “Polarstern” for further details.

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