Four Seasons In One Day: The Met Office, Weather, Climate and Engagement

Jeremy Walton

Met Office Hadley Centre, UKESM Core Group

Besides building and supporting the UK Earth System Model and providing science-based guidance on future Earth system change, the activities of the UKESM project include outreach and engagement.  In this vein, our group has presented at events such as the Blue Dot Music and Science Festival and the Royal Society Summer Exhibition, describing how our work contributes to studies of climate change and its implications for everyday life.  The Met Office (which is one of the partners in the UKESM project) also has a strong outreach programme, which has a particular emphasis on educating young people about the wide-ranging impacts of weather and climate change.  The programme provides resources for lessons in schools and, through its STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Ambassador activity, aims to increase young people’s awareness of Met Office science and encourages interest in STEM careers at the Met Office and further afield.

In addition, the Met Office receives requests from external groups such as the u3a, Probus, Women’s Institute, Rotary and science clubs to provide a speaker for one of their meetings.  The informality of the setting suggests a talk which, whilst informative, is also entertaining.  The Met Office doesn’t charge a speaker’s fee; instead, the group is asked to make a donation to its corporate charity, which is currently Surfers Against Sewage.

I joined the speaker’s roster shortly after arriving at the Met Office in 2013 – mainly as an incentive for me to find out more about its activities before telling people about them.  Since then, I’ve given several of these talks to groups up and down the country and have found this opportunity to engage with members of the general public about our work to be stimulating and – occasionally – surprising.

The talk describes the origins of the Met Office (see Figure 1), how the weather is forecasted and our work in climate science.  The emotional link that people have with the weather is always a feature of questions and comments from the audience, although I no longer feel I am being held personally responsible for the – increasingly rare – occasions on which the forecast has proved to be inaccurate or misleading.  The name of Michael Fish (who famously discounted the possibility of a hurricane in his forecast on the BBC a few hours before the Great Storm of 1987 hit the UK) invariably comes up, although this can be used as part of a discussion of the improvements which have been made in observations and modelling in the ensuing thirty-odd years (Figure 2).

Figure 1.  The Met Office was set up under Robert Fitzroy (top left) following the loss of The Royal Charter in a violent storm in 1859 (right).  Fitzroy was responsible for the first weather forecasts (bottom left), a term he originated.

Figure 2.  The accuracy of the 1-day forecast can be measured as the difference between the value of a forecasted quantity (such as mean sea level pressure, shown here) and the observed value of that quantity a day later.  A decreasing difference (note the direction of the y axis) corresponds to increased accuracy.  As the period of the forecast increases, it becomes less accurate, but all forecasts are improving over time; in fact the accuracy of the 2-day forecast today is about the same as that of the 1-day forecast a decade ago.

Part of those improvements are due to increased compute power.  For the first hundred years of the Met Office’s existence, the forecast was calculated by hand (as in the example shown in Figure 1).  Indeed, the word “computer” originally denoted a person who computes; when electronic devices were developed mid-way through the last century, they were distinguished from the people by the addition of the “electronic” modifier to their names.  Those people working on the original forecasts would – like all of us – have taken around a second to perform a single calculation.  This puts into perspective the speed of the current Met Office computer, which can perform twelve thousand million million calculations per second.  The resultant improvement in forecasts also helps explain why the Met Office is about to move to a newer, faster machine (which the members of the audience have paid for, however involuntarily).

When I started giving these talks eight years ago, I had the impression that audiences were more interested in the weather than in the climate: thus for example, I was told by a member of the audience at my very first presentation that global warming was simply a hoax dreamed up by the government in order to raise his taxes.  That focus has shifted over the years, which I think reflects the public’s increased awareness of climate change and its implications (in addition, it might be that as the reliability of the forecast has improved it has started to be taken more and more for granted).

Climate change is a scientific subject in which the public has become more interested (at least compared to other areas of science) because of its connections to human activities and implications for society.  The scale of the problem (both spatial and temporal), together with the amount of commitment – at levels ranging from the personal to the national – required to mitigate or adapt to its effects, can be daunting (Figure 3).  A sustained degree of public engagement and understanding is one of the requirements for mitigation and adaption efforts that are successful.  Presenting results which have been recently determined using our model (Figure 4) illustrates some of the aspects of climate science, and conveys our concerns about what is likely to happen in the future.

Figure 3.  Each year is assigned a colour (on a blue-red scale) corresponding to its average UK temperature.  This provides a striking illustration of the way in which the UK has been getting hotter in recent years.

Figure 4.  Climate models (in this case UKESM1) simulate the behaviour of the Earth’s climate and calculate variables of interest (in this case near-surface temperature) over the historical period and for different projections into the future.  Temperature is plotted as the difference from its global average for 1850-1900, which focusses attention on changes since that period.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was giving a few of these talks every year.  The last talk I gave in person was to a group in Glasgow at the beginning of 2020, on the day after Storm Ciara (Figure 5) caused significant damage to the UK – in particular, major disruption to rail services.  I might say that the talk appeared to go down very well indeed, although I think that was partly because the group couldn’t believe someone had made a 16 hour round trip for the sake of an hour’s meeting.

The lockdown has meant that subsequent talks have had to be delivered remotely (usually via Zoom or Teams).  Like so many of the changes which we have been forced to embrace in the past year, there are positive aspects to this one: specifically, that of accessibility and time saved through not having to travel (see above).  In addition, direct communication between groups has led to recommendations for speakers and, accordingly, the frequency of talks has increased recently so that I am now giving one every couple of weeks.  It remains to be seen how much of this new mode of delivery and engagement will be retained as we emerge from lockdown.


Figure 5.  A few  of the effects of Storm Ciara in the UK (railway from Exeter to Glasgow not shown).

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