WeatherWebb

Making the weather more accessible

Life in the day of a meteorologist

When I’m in a taxi, talking to a waitress or chatting with someone at the gym and I say that I’m a weather forecaster they always say how great that is, but when I say I have to work 12 hour night shifts, weekends and holidays they seem surprised, they always assume a weather forecast has an easy life presenting the weather, but that isn’t true. Being a meteorologist is great, I get to talk about the weather all day, which if you ask my family and friends, I often do too much, but it is also exhausting and anti-social.

A meteorologist can be defined as a person “who uses scientific principles to explain, understand, observe, or forecast the earth’s atmospheric phenomena and/or how the atmosphere affects the earth and life on the planet” (American Meteorological Society 2015). Meteorologists tend to work more hours during the winter months than summer months as there are more hazards in the winter. For example during the winter snow, ice and frosts are more likely and road surface temperatures fall below zero. In the summer and winter there can be heavy rain, thunderstorms and strong winds. There is only one main hazard that only occurs during the summer months and that is high temperatures. This means that meteorologists can work more than 50 hours in one week during the winter, but only work 15 in the summer.

forecasters

At MeteoGroup, where I work, shifts normally range between 7.5 and 12 hours, but night shifts are always 12 hours, from 7pm to 7am or 8pm to 8am. Usually a forecaster works 7-8 night shifts a month in the winter and 2-3 in the summer. Luckily I move into the Meteorological Services Analyst team during the summer so I do not have to work night shifts in the summer. The reason I am able to move away from forecasting during the summer is because there are fewer forecasting shifts during the summer as the weather is not as hazardous. In the winter, during the day there will be between 10-11 forecasters on shift and at night 3-4, whereas in the summer there will be 5-6 forecasters on shift during the day and 2 overnight.

At the start of any shift, whether day or night, the forecasters will compare the latest weather models, as well as check the latest observations, satellite image and radar. Additionally, they will receive a handover from the previous shift so they are aware of any issues as well as what is expected to happen weather wise. During a day shift the forecasters write many different forecasters whether it be for media clients, roads companies or energy companies. However, they will also answer phone calls from clients as well as speaking to journalists and posting on social media and the WeatherCast website. Overnight, a forecaster will monitor the evolving weather conditions closely and notify the clients of any changes to the forecast, as well as writing and sending further weather forecasts.

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Weather charts used on a daily basis

So there you have it, a weather forecaster’s life isn’t easy as it looks on the TV, in fact many of us do not appear on the TV, but work long hours making sure the roads are gritted, trains run on time and that the weather’s in the newspaper when you read it. The weather never stops, not even for bank holidays, so meteorologists work 365 days a week, 24/7.

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Women in weather

I finished work at 8am this morning so didn’t want to do anything too strenuous this afternoon, but I did attend a brilliant webinar run by Northrop Grumman about “Women in Weather”. The hangout/webinar was organised after the National Science Foundation found out that only 14% of the 14,000 professionals employed in atmospheric sciences were women.

In attendance were:

· Courtney Draggon, Director, International Activities Office, National Weather Service
· Ginger Zee, Chief Meteorologist, ABC News
· Maria LaRosa, Meteorologist, The Weather Channel
· Laura Delgado López – Project Manager, Secure World Foundation
· Rebecca Miller, Operations Meteorologist, Southwest Airlines
· Robyn Heffernan, Incident Meteorologist, National Weather Service
· Jenny Hibbert, Operations Meteorologist, Fugro GEOS

women in weather

One of the key points that came up, was the need to remove the “weather girl” stigma. Over the years, the general public seem to have forgotten that scientists are behind the weather forecast, and as Rebecca Miller said “We are not looked at as scientists, we’re looked at as paper dolls”. There is a need to increase the understanding of what meteorology is and the amount of work that goes into the daily weather forecasts. Additionally, Ginger Zee added “understanding of what a meteorologist is is our biggest problem.” She also mentioned that most meteorologists she knows are asked whether they’re on TV when they say what they do, and this is something I have frequently been asked.

Understandably, as it was an all female panel the question of female meteorologists being treated differently to male meteorologists came up, and it did become apparent that there is a difference, especially due to that “weather girl” stigma. Rebecca Miller said that “women on tv are treated differently to men, which makes it hard to get the message across to the public.” However, Jenny Hibbert, who works in the oil and gas industry, said that she “hadn’t run into much sexism” and that it was the “best time to be a woman in the science workplace.” Encouragingly male meteorologists and followers took to twitter saying that there shouldn’t be a difference and that things need to change, as illustrated by the tweet below.

man tweet

The panel also spoke about education and Ginger Zee mentioned that she was lucky enough to go storm chasing in the Great Plains as part of her college course (something I’m very jealous of) and that you learn far more in the field then you do in a text book. The panel were also asked about any unique aspects of their work they enjoyed, and for me, the most interesting answer was from Robyn Heffernan who spoke about her work as an Incident Meteorologist for the NWS. She can spend a number of weeks away from her family and be based in very dangerous situations close to forest fires, and then forecasts how the fires are likely to develop so that they can be managed efficiently. Additionally she mentioned that the NWS IMETs have the opportunity to do exchanges between America and Australia and that they learn a lot from these experiences, again highlighting how important it is to get out into the field.

When asked what valuable pieces of advice they had received they key topics were not being afraid to ask for help, talk to people and network, and don’t worry about what people thing of you as shown below!

tweets

I’ve only covered a few of the topics discussed today, so if you would like to watch the Women in Weather webinar click here or watch the video below and to view other peoples comments on the webinar go to #ExtremeWx on Twitter!

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What is the spring equinox?

As I was working at the weekend, I wrote a blog on MeteoGroup’s WeatherCast website about the spring equinox that occurred last night. You can read my story here: What is the spring equinox?

'Soldiers at Stonehenge' Exhibition

You can find a list of my other stories on the WeatherCast website here: Published articles

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Why do weather forecasts vary so much?

There are many different sources for checking the UK weather, whether it be reading the paper, checking an app, watching the weather forecast on the TV or listening to the radio as shown below, but it’s been noticed recently that the forecasts can often be very different!

Example of weather forecast sources

Example of weather forecast sources

The 4 main weather forecasting companies in the UK are the Met Office, MeteoGroup, MetDesk and WSI, which supply forecasts and data to many of the other companies. For example the Met Office supplies the BBC with data and MeteoGroup supplies Channel 4. In the last few months, more and more people have been asking why the weather forecast differs so much depending on where you look at it. For example Liam Dutton from Channel 4 tweeted at the beginning of March that the forecast varied depending on which app you looked at, as shown below. In fact on Saturday 7th March it was a gorgeously sunny day and the maximum observed temperature was 16.1C in Greater London!

Liam Dutton's tweets

Liam Dutton’s tweets

The reason the forecast varies so much between the sources is because different companies look at different weather models. At MeteoGroup we have access to a number of models such as those shown below and then the forecasters analyse these models at the start of a shift;

  • ECMWF
  • EURO4
  • UKMO Global
  • KNMI (HiRLAM)
  • GFS
  • WRF

It is likely the other companies have access to these or at least some of these models as well, but they are likely to weight their forecast on a specific model. For example, the Met Office spends a lot of money developing their own models, such as EURO4 and the UKMO Global model, so they are likely to use that model on a more regular basis. However, by only looking at one or two models you decrease how accurate your forecast will be as because the weather is a chaotic system; if the starting conditions are wrong then it is likely the forecast will be wrong.

A key example of when this happened was on Tuesday 17th and Wednesday 18th February 2015 when the Met Office/BBC were forecasting it to be largely cloudy and cold across England as that’s what their models suggested. However, MeteoGroup looked at other models such as ECMWF which suggested it would be largely clear and warm with plenty of sunshine. In fact both days saw spells of sunshine across England and it was an unseasonably warm day. It became very obvious that the Met Office forecast was wrong when the BBC weather presenter showed the current satellite image with largely clear skies at the beginning of their forecast, but then went to the forecast for the same time and it was completely cloudy… It can often be difficult for the lead forecaster to decide on the forecast scenario if the models contradict each other!

It is important to remember that weather forecasting is a science and that it is on average only 87% accurate. The models we have access to now are incredible, but as I mentioned before, the weather is a chaotic system and therefore it can always change, potentially just because a butterfly flapped his wings.

If you’re after a new app as you’re fed up of the forecast being wrong, I’d recommend MeteoGroup’s app WeatherPro!!

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Frontal systems & troughs

In previous weeks I have blogged about pressure systems and air masses, but this week I thought I’d discuss frontal systems.

There are three types of frontal system; occluded, warm and cold. A frontal system or weather front can be defined as a boundary that separates two different air masses and they are often associated with band of precipitation. They are typically found close to low pressure systems with the occlusion being close to the centre of the low.

A warm front is usually depicted on a weather map by a red line with semi circles on the side of which it’s travelling, as illustrated in the image below. A warm air mass will follow behind the warm front, and the area that is influenced by this air mass is often known as the “warm sector.” This is because, a cold front usually follows close behind, so the warm air does not linger for a long time. As the warm front approaches you will see an increase in cirrus cloud, followed by altocumulus clouds. A band of rain will then move in, and as the warm front moves through the winds will veer and the temperature will rise. Once in the warm sector it will remain rather cloudy (the cloud mainly stratus), mild and damp, until the cold front moves through.

Diagram to illustrate the positioning of frontal systems

Diagram to illustrate the positioning of frontal systems

A cold front is depicted by a blue line with triangles positioned on the side of which it’s travelling as illustrated above. Cold fronts tend to be more active than warm fronts and for this reason thunder and lightning may occur as it passes over. As the front moves through winds will veer once more and temperatures will fall. Additionally the pressure is likely to increase. It will turn sunnier/clearer once the front clears, but showers may follow on behind, particularly if there is a trough behind the cold front.

When the cold front catches up with the warm front, which it normally does as the cold front travels quicker than a warm front, it becomes an occluded front. An occluded front is usually depicted by a purple line on a weather map, with semi circles and triangles positioned on the side of which the front is moving. Occluded fronts often get caught up with the cyclonic low pressure system and wrap around the centre. This is often known as a “wrap-around occlusion” as shown on the synoptic map below. These areas can often lead to rather unsettled weather with long spells of rain as they are often slow moving in comparison to warm and cold fronts as they tend to move at the speed of the low pressure.

Synoptic map showing occluded front spiralling round a low pressure system (KNMI 2015).

Synoptic map showing occluded front spiralling round a low pressure system (KNMI 2015).

As mentioned previously, a trough may follow behind the cold front which can increase instability and produce showers and thunderstorms. A surface trough is normally associated with stormy weather as they have increased and instability and are more convective than frontal systems. They are identified by areas of elongated low pressure, this means the area of low pressure that stretches outwards. There is no universal symbol for a trough, but it is usually illustrated by a straight line, for example in the synoptic map above, a trough is positioned close to the low just south of Italy. Troughs do not need to be associated with frontal systems, but they will always be close to low pressure.

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First signs of spring

As I was working at the weekend, I wrote a blog on MeteoGroup’s WeatherCast website about the first signs of spring and daytime heating. You can read my story here: First signs of Spring

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Diagram I created to show the process of daytime heating for the WeatherCast website

 

You can find a list of my other stories on the WeatherCast website here: Published articles

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The UK’s air masses

The UK’s weather is often a discussed, mainly because it is so changeable. In one day you can see sunshine, rain, snow, thunder and strong winds. The reason the British weather changes so much is for several reasons, such as; we’re an island, we’re often under the path of the jet stream, we’re affected by 6 different air masses.

For my diploma, I recently produced the map below to illustrate the different air masses that affect the UK and the different weather conditions they can bring. In general, the polar and arctic air masses are most frequent in the winter months and the tropical in the summer months. However, they can be seen at almost any point in the year. The most frequent air masses to influence the UK are the polar maritime and tropical maritime; we are frequently in a south-west to north-westerly flow.

airmasses

The maritime air masses are often very moist as they come from the seas and oceans and therefore collect moisture as they travel towards the UK. Continental air masses come from continental Europe and therefore are often drier in comparison to maritime air masses as they don’t have as much of an opportunity to collect moisture from the seas.

When it comes to winter, there are 3 main air masses that are associated with snow; the arctic maritime, polar maritime and polar continental. In 2012, I wrote an article on the “Perfect conditions for snow” for the MeteoGroup website WeatherCast. Below you can see the three maps I produced to illustrate what areas of the UK are likely to see the heaviest snow depending on which air mass is affecting the UK.

So how does an air mass change? When watching the weather on TV you will see or hear the forecaster discuss a front. Frontal systems are associated with low pressure systems, which develop, in general, to the north of the jet stream (as discussed in my previous blog; Pressure, highs and lows). Behind each front, there will be a different air mass; behind a cold front you may see a arctic maritime air mass or behind a warm front you may see a tropical maritime air mass. This leads to variations in the British weather, and it is often why it can start mild and wet in the morning, and then turn cold and dry in the afternoon. Additionally, high pressure systems can also influence the air mass that affects the UK. For example, if high pressure is situated over Germany, the winds travel in a clockwise direction, therefore warm air from France and Spain will move into the UK. This would be the tropical continental air mass.

Next time you’re looking at a synoptic map or weather forecast, see if you can determine which air mass is going to affect the UK in the coming days.

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Pressure, highs and lows

In the past year I have seen the media explain normal weather conditions as some very strange things. Recently, the “Weather bomb” has become a new definition, which is more understandable then some media phrases as the word bomb as a news headline could alarm a few people, but it did seem to be thrown around rather a lot. Anyway, I thought I’d clear a few things up when it comes to pressure.

The weather around the world is affected by pressure, which is measured by a barometer in millibars (mbar) or hectopascals (hPa). The standard pressure level is 1013mbar. The pressure continuously tries to balance out around the globe. In large scale terms, high pressure tends to be based close to the equator and low pressure close to the poles. This is because high pressure and low pressure systems surround the two polar jet streams as illustrated in the diagram below.

Diagram to illustrate global circulation (Climate4you 2015)

Diagram to illustrate global circulation (Climate4you 2015)

High and low pressure systems develop where the jet stream meanders. In the northern hemisphere, the low pressure systems form to the north of the polar jet stream in troughs and high pressure systems form to the south of the jet stream in ridges.

High pressure systems bring settled weather to the  UK, this can be dry and sunny or cloudy, as this week has shown. Winds travel in a clockwise direction around a high pressure system (in the northern hemisphere) which can lead to cold or warm air from the continent being brought into the area. In comparison, low pressure systems bring unsettled and windy weather to the UK. The winds travel in an anti-clockwise direction and usually have frontal systems associated with them with can bring heavy and persistent bands of precipitation. An example of how these systems appear on a synoptic map is shown below as well as how pressure is illustrated by isobars; lines of equal air pressure.

Synoptic map showing low pressure across the UK and high pressure across the Mediterranean (KNMI 2015)

Synoptic map showing low pressure across the UK and high pressure across the Mediterranean (KNMI 2015)

Just to make things even more confusing, there can be different types of high and low pressure systems. The most significant variant of a high pressure system would be a high a Blocking High. This works in the same way as a normal high pressure system. However, it is more rigid in it’s form and therefore low pressure systems fail to move it out the way or break it’s barrier. These systems tend to last 7-10days.

When it comes to low pressure systems, the most notable is probably a Bomb Low (also now known as a Weather bomb). A Bomb Low is when the pressure at the center of the low drops by more than 24mbar in 24 hours; this means there are often very strong winds associated with them. Another low pressure system that can lead to notable weather is a Polar Low. Polar Low’s are short lived low pressure systems, but they can be very intense. The form in cold conditions when the sea below is warmer. These systems are often associated with heavy snow and strong winds.

Over the next few weeks I’ll try and explain frontal systems and air masses in more detail, so that you can read the crazy headlines and translate it into what the weather is actually going to be like!! E.g. “Arctic blast to hit the UK” last week would be “Normal conditions for the UK in the middle of winter.”

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Groundhog Day, Phil says 6 more weeks of winter

Today, the 2nd February, marks Groundhog day in many parts of America, but especially Punxsutawney.  The people of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania have been celebrating the Folk Lore Celebration, Groundhog day, since 1886. The whole day revolves around Phil, the weather forecasting groundhog. According to the stories, Phil drank the “elixir of life” and has therefore been able to make accurate weather forecasts for the past 125 years! (The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, 2015)

Groundhog Day 2005 in Punxutawney, Pennsylvania

Groundhog Day 2005 in Punxutawney, Pennsylvania

On 2nd February, Phil wakes up and comes out of his burrow on Gobbler’s Knob. Legend has it, that if he sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter, and if he doesn’t see his shadow, spring will start early. Once Phil has come out of his burrow and seen/not seen his shadow, he speaks to the Groundhog Club president in “Groundhogese” and tells him what he expects over the next 6 weeks. The Groundhog Club president then translates the Groundhogese to the rest of the world.

Groundhog day is probably best known around the world, after the release of Groundhog Day, the film in 1993. The film sees Billy Murray stuck in a time loop after complaining too much about having to cover the Groundhog Day celebrations as a TV weatherman.

Groundhog Day the film, staring Bill Murray (1993)

Groundhog Day the film, staring Bill Murray (1993)

So what has Phil forecast for the people of Punxsutawney this year? 6 more weeks of winter! Based on current meteorological conditions this very likely, well at least for the next 2 weeks. Temperatures will struggle to rise above zero during the next 2 weeks and there is the potential for temperatures to plummet to -20C overnight on Friday. Snow is also possible on Thursday and Sunday making it feel very wintry.

The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club home page from 2nd February 2015

The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club home page from 2nd February 2015

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Are plants adapting to climate change?

The answer is easy, yes, plants are adapting to climate change, and the proof of this is in our gardens, parks and woods now. This winter began unseasonably mild, but has gradually turned colder with temperatures closer to or sometimes below the seasonal average. We’ve had several hard frosts in the past month with temperatures dropping to -5C in parts of southern England and -13C in the north. However, there are still plenty of flowers in bloom that shouldn’t be according to gardening books.

My Mum is a keen gardener and has been commenting on all the different flowers she’s got in the garden at the moment. Below are some of the photos I took this week after a frosty night, the flowers range from daffodils which shouldn’t be out for another couple of months to Pinks which don’t normally flower until the summer. Additionally, she’s got cyclamen’s still out from last summer and snow drops coming through.

According to some sources, one in six flowering plants are in flower which is more than normal for this time of year. It’s not just plants though, the Woodland Trust received its first report of frogs-spawn in November! This is the earliest it’s been reported for a decade (Clover 2015). Additionally, ladybirds are still being seen in south-western parts of England.

So has Spring really sprung early and Winter not arrived? Probably not, current models suggest that the polar vortex is going to shift from northern Canada to Siberia over the next week. This means it’s going to turn colder later this week with a more northerly air flow affecting the UK. The risk of precipitation falling as snow will increase and there is the potential for significant frosts overnight.

Pinks (Dianthus) - normally flowers in the summer

Pinks (Dianthus) – normally flowers in the summer

Camellia - normally flowers in late spring or autumn

Camellia – normally flowers in late spring or autumn

Crocus - normally flowers in the spring around April time

Crocus – normally flowers in the spring around April time

Daffodil - normally flowers at the end of the winter in March time

Daffodil – normally flowers at the end of the winter in March time

Geranium - normally flowers in the spring and summer

Geranium – normally flowers in the spring and summer

Photos taken with WeatherPro.

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