Devon Life Business & Professional - Weather is Big BusIness
PUBLISHED: 10:48 22 November 2012 | UPDATED: 22:25 20 February 2013
Why flooding causes madness and hurricanes cost you money...
Weather is BIG business
Why flooding causes madness and hurricanes cost you money
Words Christine Megson
In 1854 distinguished Naval Captain Robert FitzRoy was given an experimental Government department tasked with establishing meteorology as a science, with the aim to research the possibilities of forecasting conditions, mainly to protect the safety of ships and their crews at sea. He was spurred on by such tragedies as the sinking of the Royal Charter in 1859, which was wrecked off the coast of Anglesey in a fearsome storm with the loss of almost all the 500 passengers on board.
FitzRoy succeeded in developing the first storm-warning service, using canvas-covered frames in different shapes to alert ships to dangers; these were lit up by fires at night so they could give warnings at any time. Other forecasting techniques he pioneered, such as synoptic charts, are still in use today.
It is from these beginnings that todays Exeter-based Met Office has evolved into a world-class business. The work done there affects every part of all our lives, and its influence is felt around the globe. Most of us see the weather forecast as the depressing bit at the end of the news, or the one that always gets it wrong. Its the messenger that gets shot when summers are disappointing or events washed out, and it is the voice of warning on climate change that we dont want to hear. What isnt so obvious is the unseen business of the Met Office whose job it is to help us understand and work with our environment.
Beyond the striking glass exterior, in a calm and ambient environment, lies the beating heart of our weather and climate services. 1,800 men and women are employed at over 60 locations worldwide to provide the environmental information we need to run our world.
With the help of 10 million weather observations a day, an advanced atmospheric model and a high-performance supercomputer, they create 3,000 tailored forecasts and briefings every 24 hours, and are rated as one of the top two national meteorological services worldwide.
Decisions are made every minute across the world based on the weather: what you wear, how you get to work, where to go for a holiday, what you eat, and even whether or not you go to prison may be informed by data from Exeter.
As a Trading Fund within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the organisation operates on a commercial basis under set targets, tendering for contracts and paying a dividend back to the Government. The organisation is split into two business units: the Government unit, which deals mostly with the Ministry of Defence providing services for the Armed Forces; and the commercial sector, which is the powerhouse of the company, providing a mind-boggling range of information.
One of the largest and most obvious commercial sectors needing the Met Offices expertise is health. Patrick Sachon is in charge of the brief, dealing with the impacts of the weather on the well-being of the nation through a variety of commercial products.
Pollen forecast: This service accounts for a substantial chunk of commercial revenue, and is a bespoke service paid for by drug companies. It is currently sponsored by Benadryl and provides free-to-use public information backed up by data from 18 sites around the country.
Its been an interesting season this year. The rain promoted strong growth of plants but although it was wet, the pollen count see-sawed. Normally youd see a three-pollen season tree, then grass and weeds. This year everything came at once, which meant more pollen in the air and more people developing hay fever. The damp weather has also meant more fungal spores this autumn.
UV Index: Sponsored by a skincare charity called SKCIN, the Karen Clifford skin cancer charity, this is also free public information available for 5,000 sites around the UK and 4,000 around the world. On sites carrying the UV index, holidaymakers can log on and check the strength of the sun anywhere in the world.
This year, because weve had so much wet weather, people havent routinely carried sun cream with them and theyve been caught out by sudden bursts of hot weather leading to sunburn. Although there hasnt been much sun, what weve had has been very strong.
Heatwave Plan: The Governments public health plan for England and Wales is formulated by the Met Office and published in May each year to issue advice should the weather suddenly turn hot. It carries information aimed at reducing deaths during heatwaves such as those experienced in 2003 and 2006.
We issue alerts pointing out the healthcare plan when hot weather is forecast. They are e-mailed directly to healthcare professionals, put on our website and carried by TV news bulletins. If we do have any periods of extreme heat, people will be less prepared than in previous years and will take more risks. The Department of Health issues a similar cold weather plan, which is implemented in October.
Weather does strange things to us all as Patrick pointed out. From data we have supplied to the Health Protection Agency, research has shown that trauma and stress caused by severe flooding is linked to an increase in mental health issues. This is the kind of detailed information that healthcare trusts and local authorities can use to allocate resources.
For virtually every profession, from builders to lawyers, pilots, fishermen and retailers, the weather is the least predictable factor and the one that has the biggest impact on financial success. The lucrative commercial arm of the Met Office supplies services to an enormous range of companies and institutions whose success depends on whether it rains or shines.
Cathy Durston is the Executive Head of Commercial Business. We have our general weather forecasts which are designed for the public, but there is a whole range of bespoke products which are more about the impact of the weather, and which people know very little about. The range of information supplied is as broad as it is surprising, and provides a fascinating glimpse into what goes on behind the scenes.
Utilities and Renewables
Some sectors are more obviously impacted by the weather than others. Utility companies, for example, commission daily forecasts to update their energy-demand models, which in turn decide whether power stations should stay on or be turned off. We are also seeing more renewables coming on stream such as wind, solar and wave, and obviously the weather is central to their operations.
Road-gritting forecast services are bought by Councils, the Highways Agency and a range of other organisations. The Highways Agency and the Environment Agency have forecasters embedded at their offices during the winter months. Detailed and sophisticated products have been developed even down to the road temperature and leaf canopies across roads to help councils budget for the right amount of grit in the right areas.
A team of forecasters is based in Aberdeen for ports, harbours and oil companies. Conditions at sea are critical to the oil and gas industries drilling operations, as well as rig maintenance and staff safety. Consistent and specialist information from the Met Offices operations centre keeps the pipelines flowing.
Weve all experienced the impact of fog, ice and other adverse conditions on the airlines. Bad weather can quickly cause chaos to schedules around the world. Forecasters are embedded at Heathrow, and airlines, airports and the Civil Aviation Authority all look to Exeter for crucial information updates. The Met Office has even developed a specialist service that enables airlines to minimise expensive de-icing procedures for their planes.
Apart from keeping the trains running on time, the Met Office also works with Network Rail on a range of long-term environmental and track issues. One example is the line at Dawlish where changing wave patterns and soil erosion are being monitored allowing future maintenance and safety issues to be planned.
DID YOU KNOW?
- Insurance companies rely on weather data to track hurricanes and cyclones. They also use it for verification of claims and for the kind of statistical analysis that decides premiums.
- Banks fund the Met Office to supply training and expertise to developing countries.
- Forecasters work for retail companies who make stock decisions on the weather patterns. How much cotton will be available? Will strawberries be early or late? And how secure will their supply chain be?
- Met Office data is requested by lawyers to back up evidence in court cases and by police to determine the risks of a variety of crimes.
- So, whilst the good old Met Office is an Exeter landmark and a local business, it is also a truly global presence which informs policy and decision making across Britain and the world.