Elements of uncertainty

Storm Arwen was identified days before it arrived on the UK’s shores

Nothing is certain in life, goes the old saying, but death and taxes. To which should probably be added, “and the weather.”

The United Kingdom is affected by changeable weather conditions because of its close proximity to the Atlantic. In addition, the country lies in the mid-latitudes, on the fringes of the Eurasian landmass with tropics to the south and the Arctic to the north. All these factors create dynamic tensions on our weather patterns.

The science of forecasting has improved greatly in recent years. Less-developed technology and meteorological science made it difficult to foresee the ferocity of the so-called Great Storm of 1987 (much of the damage was in fact caused by the then relatively unknown phenomena, a “Sting Jet”). However, by November 2021 Storm Arwen had been predicted, named and warnings disseminated days before the storm arrived. Thirty years ago, it was hard to provide an accurate forecast more than 24 hours in advance – now we can be accurate for up to a week.

Part of this improvement is not only driven by improvements to technology but also the collection of data. Over 200 billion observations, from all points of the globe, are now received daily at the Met Office from satellites, radar, weather stations, ocean buoys, weather balloons and ship observations. The constant collection of data ensures the most up-to-date data is used by our weather models.

Having collated the data, we then do something called perturbing the data –making small adjustments to provide a variety of possible outcomes. Once we have 30 different outcomes, we compare these against one another to check for cluster patterns. For example, if 15 of the 30 data sets predict rain in Glasgow, we can state with reasonable confidence that there will be a 50% chance of rain.

Although forecasting the weather is now more accurate than ever before an element of uncertainty will always remain. However, we live in a world where uncertainty is unpopular. When you consider how the likes of aviation, travel, agriculture, leisure, the military, the insurance industry and so many other sectors are affected by the weather, eliminating uncertainty is not just desirable – it can be essential. The question is – how can we reduce the element of uncertainty?

A key part of meteorology is analysing how weather systems impact on each other. A good example of this uncertainty has been the recent unusual weather across the Northern Hemisphere. While Colorado suffered major bushfires due to drought and high winds, Washington DC and Japan experienced deep snow, and much of Europe was unusually warm with the UK recording its highest ever New Year’s Day temperatures.

Paul Davies, Met Office Principal Fellow, explains how these seemingly disparate events are connected:

“These events arise because we are locked into a ‘circumglobally teleconnection pattern’,” says Davies. “This describes how an area of active tropical thunderstorms in the western Pacific interacts with the Asian Pacific jet, bringing colder weather into the heart of the US, and in turn increasing the strength of the Atlantic Jet Steam, driving associated weather fronts into the UK.”

The more we understand the relationship between global drivers – including El Niño, La Niña, the Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO) and phases of the sun – the more certain we can be about the future.  

“A good analogy would be a football season,” explains Paul Davies. “By looking at the results over the past few seasons, we can make fairly accurate predictions about the outcome of the title. But on a more granular level, there is still uncertainty. Even the Premier League holders can occasionally lose a match.”

What we can do however is reduce the level of uncertainty by continuing to update the systems we use to collect data and study how systems interact. As technology continues to improve, and Artificial Intelligence makes it easier to run multiple possibilities for every situation, forecasts will continue to improve. The future for weather forecasting is bright. It’s a shame we can’t always say the same about the weather!

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Natural variation and the influence on global temperature

2021 was another warm year globally – consistent with ongoing warming from greenhouse gases.

The global average surface temperature in 2021 was 0.76 ± 0.04 °C above the 1961-1990 average according to the Met Office and University of East Anglia’s HadCRUT5 data set.

Regional differences in average temperature in 2021 are particularly pronounced with above average warming clearly evident in the Arctic.

This places 2021 as joint sixth warmest year since records began 172 years ago. Other climate monitoring centres rank 2021 from the fifth to the seventh warmest year in their records.

In the seven years from 2015, the planet’s annual average surface temperature – as measured by the global network of weather stations, ships and ocean buoys – has been higher than in any year prior to 2015 in the recorded series beginning in 1850.

As the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increases each year, why doesn’t the annual global temperature increase every year too? The simple answer is that the planet’s temperature is subject to a certain element of natural variation, especially in the exchange of heat between the ocean and the atmosphere, especially in the tropical Pacific.

A cycle of variability known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) allows temperature to fluctuate between warm ‘El Niño’ years and cooler ‘La Niña’ years. When La Niña conditions prevail parts of the tropical Pacific are cooler than normal and this cooling has an impact on the overall average temperature of the earth – the opposite effect happens in an El Niño year.

Colin Morice is a Met Office scientist. Dr Morice said: “The variation in temperature in the tropical Pacific arising from ENSO events broadly coincides with the northern hemisphere winter. During 2021 the year was ‘book-ended’ by successive La Niña events which has had a modest effect on the average temperature, making 2021 cooler than recent extreme years.

The past seven years, which are the seven warmest years on record, encompassed an exceptionally strong El Niño event in late 2015/early 2016 and a “double dip” La Niña in 2020/21 and 2021/22. Dr Morice continued: “Variability in global temperature – particularly that associated with El Niño and La Niña events – mean we don’t expect each year in the global temperature record to be warmer than the last. However, over the full record, all 172 years, the long-term warming is clear.”

Taking measurements from weather stations and the temperature of the sea’s surface from ships has been a key part of meteorology for over 170 years. A fuller picture of the changing climate can be provided by considering other climate indicators alongside surface temperature.

Ocean heat content measures change in the energy in the global ocean. It has been estimated that over 90% of the excess heat trapped in the earth system by human-emitted greenhouse gases goes into the ocean. Dr Morice explained: “Measurements from different layers of the ocean are allowing scientists to record ocean heat content, and it is clear to see that a lot of the heat from global warming is being taken down into the deeper layers of the ocean. In contrast to surface temperature, ocean heat content rises more steadily as excess energy continues to accumulate in the climate system.” Recent results show that ocean heat content reached a new record high in 2021, as it did in 2020.

The effects of accumulating greenhouse gases and this excess of energy are seen across the earth system. Key climate indicators can be used to track some of these effects at the broadest scales.

Learn more about key climate indicators with our climate dashboards.

 

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Scientists call for research to rise to the challenge of HILL events

The higher global temperatures rise, the greater the likelihood of extreme weather events

Extreme weather events have become more frequent in recent years, and many of these can be attributed to climate change. The capabilities of weather forecasting and longer-term climate modelling have improved exponentially over recent decades, but even the best forecasting tools are challenged by “High Impact, Low Likelihood” (HILL) events.

HILL events go beyond traditional weather extremes, potentially taking the climate system into uncharted territories. For example, much of the UK’s climate is predicated on two large elements of the climate system: the North Atlantic jet stream, a core of strong winds five to seven miles above the Earth’s surface, and the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), a system of ocean currents which transports warm water northwards in the Atlantic.

Changes in both of these systems linked to increasing warmth in the Arctic have been cited as potential HILL events. A change in either or both isn’t considered likely in the immediate future (low likelihood), but the impacts from such changes would be devastating (high impact). One example of an unusual weather event is extreme rainfall.

In July 2021, parts of London received up to a month’s rainfall in an hour, causing flash flooding and disrupting transport. This event – which went on to cause devastating flooding and loss of life in continental Europe – was created when an area of slow-moving low pressure became trapped in the meridian of the Jet Stream, creating what’s known as a “Quasi-stationary” storm.

Professor Lizzie Kendon, Science Fellow at the Met Office, published a paper with Dr Abdullah Kahraman, of Newcastle University, in 2021 which found that “quasi-stationary” storms that exceed specific thresholds in moisture and uplift, where they are pushed up by rising terrain (and so have the potential for high rainfall accumulations) could become 14 times more common across Europe as a whole by the end of the century.

Further analysis for the UK, using the latest UKCP Local (2.2km) projections indicate that the number of days with rainfall exceeding 30mm/h (for at least one 5km grid box across London) could – using the most pessimistic scenario of action to tackle climate change increase 2.5 times by the 2070s compared to 1990s under the RCP8.5 scenario. These results suggest a big increase in the frequency of flash-flood producing rainfall events.

HILL events were a key theme of the Met Office Climate Science Conference in May 2021, and the Met Office also hosted a session on HILL events at the COP26 Science Pavilion.

Met Office Science Strategic Head Dr Richard Wood said: “Both the climate science and policy communities would benefit from devoting more attention to HILL events because they are a major component of climate change risk. There are some key questions that need answering as we move towards implementing a desired pathway for the global climate and living with the consequences. Although it isn’t certain where the thresholds are for these HILL events, we can be sure that higher levels of global warming will make them more likely.”

Prof Richard Betts MBE is the Head of Climate Impacts Research in the Met Office Hadley Centre and a Professor at the University of Exeter. Prof Betts, who led the team which prepared the Technical Report for the UK’s 3rd Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA3), is calling for a monitoring, attribution and prediction system that can provide early warning of HILLs.

Professor Betts said: “With rising global temperatures, we are edging closer to the thresholds for more and more HILL events. Greater research into these events will help scientists advise policy makers on their thresholds and impacts.”

Risk registers could form an essential part of the future planning of all key sectors of the economy, such as finance and energy, to mitigate against HILL events. The better adapted we are, the more lives can be protected. There will be financial benefits too. For instance, by assessing potential flood risk as a result of climate change, science can help developers avoid building on flood plains, save money for the insurance industry, and protect peoples’ lives and livelihoods.

It will never be possible to predict extreme events with a hundred per cent accuracy. What’s important is that we do all we can to assess how factors such as carbon-dioxide levels, melting ice sheets, and the thawing of the permafrost can impact hugely on the environment. The higher global temperatures rise, the greater the likelihood of extreme weather events. If we can understand and predict them better, we can help society be better prepared.


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Shackleton and the Antarctic 100 years on

To commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the death of Ernest Shackleton, the Met Office has produced a video paying tribute to the Polar explorer’s incredible exploits and explaining why the Antarctic remains essential for scientists researching climate change.

Shackleton’s last voyage

Antarctica: the world’s southernmost, driest, highest, windiest, coldest, and least populated continent, twice the size of Australia. The coldest temperature ever recorded, -89.0°C, was recorded here. Even now, visiting and exploring this extreme location is fraught with danger, so imagine how hazardous it was to visit a hundred years ago.

For explorer Ernest Shackleton, who died at South Georgia en-route to Antarctica 100 years ago today (5 January), this icy wilderness was an enduring source of fascination.

“Shackleton was no newcomer to the Antarctic,” says Met Office archivist Catherine Ross. “His first trip there was on the Discovery expedition with Sir Robert Falcon Scott, he then led his own expedition in 1907 when he reached the furthest South any man had reached.

Explorer Ernest Shackleton reached Antarctica three times
Shackleton was voted 11th in a poll of the greatest Britons in 2002

“In 1914 he led another expedition which was seeking to cross the Antarctic from coast to coast via the South Pole. That expedition became more famous because the vessel, the Endurance, became trapped in the ice and was crushed. Shackleton then led an incredible voyage that included travelling 720 miles across the South Antarctic Seas in a lifeboat followed by traversing a frozen mountain range with no climbing equipment or map.”

Shackleton’s bravery – which won him eleventh place in a 2002 BBC poll of the greatest Britons – was driven by a sense of adventure. While many early expeditions to Antarctica were motivated by a desire for national or personal glory, today’s visitors are motivated by something else: scientific understanding. For scientists such as those from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), based at Halley Research Station, monitoring the region’s climate and ice cover can help with forecasting future trends, including climate change.

Eight hours by plane from Halley Island lies Rothera, on Adelaide Island, which is partly-manned by a detachment of meteorologists from the Met Office. The team provides weather forecasts for aviation and in and out of the base, where temperatures rarely rise much above zero. The Met Office links to Antarctica can be traced right back to Shackleton.

Early expeditions to the Antarctic were hazardous.
Early expeditions to the Antarctic were hazardous

“The Met Office [then part of the Air Ministry], loaned Shackleton’s expedition a range of meteorological observing instruments,” says Ross, “so barometers, thermometers, and other pieces of equipment to enable them to run a meteorological observing station at sea, and they collected some two thousand sets of observations from the voyage.”

These observations included temperature, sea temperature, pressure, wind direction and force, and hand-written observations on things like the state of the ice. As such, they have proved vital in understanding how climate has changed in the last century.

“The records from Shackleton’s era are so important because they allow us to see whether the changes we are seeing now are unusual, particularly with the sea ice,” says Met Office Climate Scientist Dr Helene Hewitt. “The Endurance was trapped in the sea ice of the Weddell Sea for ten months, and those observations have enabled scientists to see whether sea ice has changed dramatically in the last hundred years or so.”

Antarctica is beautiful but hostile for visitors

If all the land-based ice in Antarctica was to melt, it is estimated the Earth’s sea level would rise by 60-70m. Fortunately, that is unlikely in the near future – but all melting has an impact on sea levels. Unlike the Arctic, which is principally sea ice, Antarctica sits on solid rock. This means events like the recent destabilising of Thwaites Glacier could have a major impact on sea levels.

In Shackleton’s era, weather and ice measurements were taken by hand and methodically recorded in logbooks, available within the Met Office digital archives. Now, ice cover is measured using more high-tech methods, including satellite.

Polar exploration and observation have changed massively since Shackleton’s day – but if he were to meet the modern-day scientists now living and working at the bottom of the world, he might well recognise them as kindred spirits.

Watch the video tribute to Ernest Shackleton

Find out more about the British Antarctic Survey

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Warm but dull month for December 2021 

December 2021 kicked off meteorological winter with a broadly warm – albeit dull – month of weather, during which the UK reached its highest New Year’s Eve temperature on record, with 16.5°C at Bala (north Wales). Maximum temperatures also exceeded 15°C in all four nations. This is according to provisional figures released by the Met Office.  

The unusually high temperatures seen on New Year’s Eve coincided with a temperate end to December, resulting in some stations breaking long-standing one-off records for the month. Cromer in Norfolk saw its warmest December day in a 103-year series with 15.4°C recorded on 30th December. 

For the complete month, it’s the notably high minimum temperatures recorded in December that stand out from the statistics, especially in southern areas. The UK had an average minimum temperature in December of 2.8°C, which is 1.4°C above the 1991-2020 long-term average; figures that have recently been updated to reflect the latest 30-year meteorological period. The highest average minimum temperature seen in December stands at 5.2°C, set in 2015.  

For southern areas, minimum temperatures were even further from the meteorological averages, with southern England seeing average minimum temperatures at 4.3°C, which is 2.0°C above the long-term average for the month. There were some exceptionally mild nights, with overcast conditions and a south-westerly flow drawing air from the Azores. Daily minimum temperatures on New Year’s Eve remained widely in double figures, with several stations including Sheffield, Bradford and Buxton recording their highest daily minimum temperature on record in series of over 100 years – around 10°C higher than the December average. 

Map showing the average minimum temperatures for the UK in December 2021. The map shows above average minimum temperatures for much of the UK, especially in the south.
Average minimum temperatures versus the long term average for December 2021

The often mild, cloudy nights resulted in below average days of frost for the much of the UK. There was an average of just 11.5 days of ground frost reported across the UK in December, well below the long-term average of 16.3 days. The fewest average number of days of ground frost in December was in 2015, with just 5.8 days.  

Map showing below average days of ground frost for the UK for December 2021. The map shows especially low numbers of ground frost days in the south.
Average number of ground frost days in the UK in December 2021 versus the long term average

Despite the relatively high temperatures, sunshine hours in December 2021 have been in short supply, with an average of just 27.6 hours for the UK, less than one hour per day on average and only around two-thirds of the normal December sunshine total. That’s little enough to make it the dullest December since 1956, when an average of 19.5 hours of sunshine was seen. It was also the UK’s sixth dullest calendar month in records from 1919. England saw 60% (30.6 hours) of its average sunshine, Wales 69% (28.3 hours), Scotland 79% (23.6 hours) and Northern Ireland only 54% (20.7 hours). 

The dull but warm conditions have provided an unusual mix for the country’s gardeners. Chief Horticultural Advisor at the Royal Horticultural Society Guy Barter said: “After milder weather and limited frosts so far this winter, greens such as Brussels sprouts and leeks have kept growing and winter flowers such as autumn flowering camellia and Christmas roses have not been spoilt.  

“Weeds too have kept growing but with dull conditions they won’t set seeds and can be spared for now to help wildlife. Lawns remain remarkably green but growth has been limited by a lack of light, so the lawnmower can rest a bit longer.” 

A map of the UK showing below average sunshine duration for December for much of the UK.
Sunshine duration for the UK versus the long term average for December

Rainfall was relatively near average for much of the UK, although areas in the northwest generally saw less than their average. Northern Ireland received 113% (136.6mm), whereas Scotland received 79% (136.8mm). The UK had 90% of its average rainfall (115.1mm).  

Map of the UK showing rainfall versus the long term average for the month. The map shows near-average rainfall for much of the UK, although slightly below average in the northwest.

Mike Kendon from the National Climate Information Centre said: “December will largely be remembered for the unseasonable warmth we saw in the middle and end of the month. As a result, we have seen relatively few days of ground frost and air frost and less of the cold weather that you’d normally expect at the start of winter, although some northern spots have seen some hard frosts. There were also remarkable temperature inversion conditions for several days in Scotland where the warmest and sunniest place to be was across the mountain summits. 

“This spell of weather in the middle of the month was driven by an established area of high pressure over the UK, keeping temperatures well above average for spells, although low temperatures did take charge in the early part of December.”  

December 2021 also saw a white Christmas declared by the Met Office, with a flurry of snow over high ground in the north of the UK. 

Check the Met Office website for a full round-up of 2021’s year in weather.

Provisional December 2021Mean temp (°C) Sunshine (hours) Rainfall (mm) 
 Actual Diff from avg (°C)Actual% of avgActual% of avg
UK 5.3 1.1 27.665  115.1 90
England 6.1 1.4 30.660 88.6 96
Wales 6.4 1.5 28.369 184.4 105
Scotland 3.4 0.4 23.679 136.8 79
N Ireland 6.1 1.4 20.754 136.6 113
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#PurpleLightUp highlighting disability and inclusion

Met Office headquarters lit up in purple
The Met Office’s Exeter headquarters lit up in purple highlighting the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Picture: Adrian Holloway/Grahame Madge

Today (3 December) is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The Met Office is a Disability Confident Employer and is today showing its commitment towards supporting disability and inclusion in the workplace by lighting up the outside of our Exeter headquarters in purple.

#PurpleLightUp is a global movement that celebrates and draws attention to the economic contribution of the 386 million disabled employees around the world.

Further information on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities is available here.

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Young People’s Questions session at the Met Office Climate Science Conference 

Felicity Liggins, Education Outreach Manager 

The Met Office Education Outreach team delivers in in-person and virtual events all over the UK and beyond. One of the best things about these events are the brilliant questions young people ask us. Alongside the queries about extreme weather and how much do clouds weigh, they also want to know more about climate change and what they can do to help. Sometimes these questions are fairly easy to answer, other times, they are really tricky! 

We decided to use the opportunity of the Met Office Climate Science Conference, held online in May 2021, to crowd-source some answers to the six most common questions from the experts in the virtual room. Have a look below at some of the suggestions they made – they’re short and snappy as they only had 250 characters to play with. Perhaps you’d answer it slightly differently? Or perhaps you want to borrow that answer the next time you get questioned by an 11-year old! 

Q: What is a dangerous level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere?  

A: We need there to be a balance of gases for plants, animals and humans to live healthily, so some carbon dioxide is important. However, the more we adjust this finely tuned balance with more CO2, the more dangerous it might be for humans and animals. 

A: CO2 in the atmosphere is like a blanket that helps to keep the world warm – like the blanket on your bed at night. If there’s too much CO2, it’s like a blanket that’s too thick, and the world gets too warm – like you getting too hot in your bed. 

Q: What skills do you need to work in climate science or related jobs?  

A: Curiosity! Climate science is a really big subject which involves everything from complex calculations to creating pictures and writing stories. If you’re interested in climate change and helping people prepare for the future, there’s a job for you! 

A: You need to be curious about the world around you. Different jobs need different skills, so there is a place for everyone to use their own skills in various ways. If you’re good at maths or coding, great. If you’re good with people, that’s great too. 

Q: What can a 7-year-old do that could have the biggest impact on climate change?  

A: Learn as much as you can and talk to everyone you know about climate change. Talk to your parents, your teachers, your friends, and your politicians and make them care about it as much as you do. Eat less meat, walk everywhere, and save energy! 

A: You’re already doing great – keep being curious and learning about climate change. You can try walking to school or eating more plants. Make sure to talk to your friends and family about what you’re doing – maybe they’ll make changes too! 

Q: What is the greatest threat posed by climate change?  

A: Climate change will affect everything and everyone that we care about so the greatest threat is us not doing absolutely everything that we can to limit the changes caused by the world heating and plan for the changes we cannot now stop. 

A: Climate change will have different impacts around the world. In some areas the greatest threat will be too little water, in other areas it will be too much water. We need to work together to tackle climate change and reduce threats globally. 

Q: What gives you hope?  

A: Hope comes from people like you [young people] taking action. It’s your generation that will be most affected, and your children, so it’s important you keep it up. It’s also encouraging that world leaders are working hard to come up with solutions. 

A: Thanks to scientists from around the world we have a good idea of how the climate might change in the future. We already have a lot of the technology need to tackle this challenge. Humans have risen up to challenges in the past, let’s tackle this one 

Q: Is it too late to help?  

A: It is absolutely not too late! When we all come together, talk about the science and the solutions, and when we are all our best selves there is no limit to what we can do. There are many solutions still to be thought of so every one of us can help. 

A: No! Because of the CO2 already in the atmosphere we are already committed to a certain amount of warming, however by stopping emissions of greenhouse gases now we can prevent any more warming, and avoid even worse impacts from climate change. 

But it’s not just young people who ask great questions. Here are some of those that were posed by participants during the Young People’s Questions Session, answered by Felicity. 

Q: How do you talk about potentially scary subjects (e.g., climate change) to children, especially young ones, without giving them nightmares? 

A: This is so important to consider. Climate change is scary for many young people, many adults too, and we don’t want to end up leaving them terrified. It’s also important to recognise that many young people might already be anxious about other things in their lives – for example, poor physical or mental health or well-being, feeling hungry or having to care for others. Climate change isn’t at the top of everyone’s worry list and we don’t want to add to that.  

So, we generally focus on what the young people can do themselves to feel like they have some form of agency. We don’t skip over the science, or shy away from talking about the impacts. But we do always build in discussion around adaptation and mitigation, what they can do as individuals and perhaps influence others to do too. These might be those little things that help lower their greenhouse gas emissions. Or perhaps it’s sharing their knowledge with others to help more people understand what’s causing climate change and what can be done to help. Or thinking about what they could do at the moment to help keep themselves and their family safe during times of extreme weather. They might even consider what they want to do in the future, and review the skills they have now and might need to develop to have a ‘green job’ when they’re older.  

Finishing on the thought that climate change is happening, it is very serious, but there is hope, is perhaps the most important thing you can do to keep those nightmares at bay. 

Q: If 74% of young people think Climate Emergency is the most important issue they face and its causing Eco-anxiety, why isn’t Carbon Literacy and Climate science in the national curriculum for all pupils and students in primary, secondary and further education?  How would you suggest we change this, urgently?  

Here in the UK, each nation (England, Scotland, Northern Ireland & Wales) has a different curriculum, with weather & climate/climate change appearing at different stages across each of these. For example, in England, primary school children learn about seasons, rivers & natural resources with climate & climate change coming in more strongly in secondary school. In Scotland, the Curriculum for Excellence links to climate science & climate change throughout many of subjects, including technologies, and health & wellbeing, alongside the sciences.  

We recognise there is both a desire from young people to find out more, as well as significant constraints on teachers’ time, with some teachers also feeling nervous about teaching what’s perceived as a complex & controversial topic. So, when we’re designing our online resources for use in the classroom, we don’t just focus on communicating the basics of climate or climate change. We look across the different subjects & think about how teachers could use weather or climate as a stimulus.  

As an example, we have a resource called Forecasting Fact-busters, which is about fake news & how to recognise an authoritative source – a vital consideration in weather forecast communications & climate science, but also a subject that is being increasingly taught in schools. Another resource is on careers, exploring the different skills needed to be a radar engineer, but also exploring the importance of diversity & inclusion within teams & organisations. And wherever possible within our resources, we make highlight the value of interdisciplinarity (our resources can support lots of different areas of the curricula) & also that climate change is something that affects everyone of us every day in one way or another, so by integrating climate change into teaching as much as possible, we can strengthen understanding and support action. 

Q: What are your top tips for scientists who are keen to get more involved in STEM and climate communication but are apprehensive because of, as you’ve said, children ask difficult questions that individuals may not know the answer to? 

A: My first tip is to not worry and to just be open about not knowing! Quite often, it’s useful for children to see that adults don’t always know the answer. That sometimes we have to go away & find out the answer from other experts & that is part of the way we learn & evolve our own understanding.  

So, if I’m at a school talk and I am asked something I’m not sure about, I’ll make sure that I make a note of the question, and I will then follow-up with the teacher after the event to give them the answer to pass on to the individual or class. I will also sometimes ask the questioner what they think the answer is, to see if that creates an interesting discussion (and it might help me create a bit more time to formulate an answer!)  

If I’m at an event like a festival, I’ll either ask other experts who are there with me or I will ask the person to come back a bit later and, in the meantime, I’ll go off to find an answer. Sometimes this means a bit of quick research online, or I might contact a colleague who’ll be able to help.  

I’ve found I’ve learned so much over the years through people asking me questions I didn’t know the answer to – It’s great! 

Q: Over the years I’ve met so many children’s groups around Scotland that are doing fantastic work - campaigning against local issues which impact their environment and have fears of climate change, but I feel this always tends to be in more affluent areas and pushed on them by parents. What sort of things do you think could perhaps encourage and engage children from less affluent areas of the country to take more of an interest? 

A: This is something that we think about a lot in our approach to engagement with schools and wider communities. It’s also something that I’ve noticed in some other forums where the climate emergency is being discussed.  

In the past, we generally delivered outreach at schools that asked us to, with many of those being located around our HQ here in Devon. Looking at the types of the schools we were visiting, we could see we were not always reaching a full cross-section of society. Many were private or grammar schools, with fewer state schools inviting us to talk to their students. We are now looking at ways to counter this trend. We are working with ‘broker’-type organisations who can help us identify & work with schools in social mobility cold spots around the UK, particularly in SW England.  

More flexibility on working location for our staff, amplified by the pandemic, has given us the opportunity to look to other areas of the UK that are more diverse than those communities close to our HQ & explore how we can reach into those meaningfully & effectively. We also look to attend festivals that are low cost or free to visitors, or others that are explicitly targeting some of the audiences we haven’t traditionally reached.  

The other thing to do is to try to make your communications & activities meaningful to those taking part. We know that climate change can suffer from the distance problem (in time and space) but if you can start to talk about the kinds of impacts, they might be seeing in their local community or region today, flooding, heatwave etc, and then contextualising these extremes within a changing climate, climate change can start to become real. But the important thing is to remember not to just focus on the hazards & impacts, but also on the potential adaptation & mitigation solutions that they can implement to help keep themselves safe, both today & into tomorrow. 

If you are interested in our education resources, you can find them on www.metoffice.gov.uk/schools. They’re still fairly new and we’re always adding new ones to the website. We are just in the process of scoping out our next release of bite-size activities and lesson plans, so if you have an idea you would like to see developed, you can always email us on stem@metoffice.gov.uk to share your thoughts! 

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Climate projections for heat in UK cities

With the recent COP26 focussing heavily on the chances of keeping global temperature rise below 1.5°C, it might be easy to forget that we are still committed to further climate change and a resulting increase in the frequency and intensity of heatwaves.

The impact of this will be felt increasingly in cities, where the majority of the world’s population now live, where much of our businesses, industry and infrastructure are concentrated, and where extreme temperatures are exacerbated by the urban heat island effect.

With many cities across the UK declaring climate emergencies, city councils and other decision-makers are asking how they can use increasingly refined and detailed climate projections to better understand the impact of extreme heat on urban communities.

The Met Office’s high-resolution projections from UKCP provide some of the most accurate climate modelling of heat in urban areas available. Dr Will Keat is a Met Office climate scientist who has studied these new projections. He said: “Our most detailed climate projections over the UK also contain a much more realistic representation of cities and other urban areas than used previously. We have found that these projections provide a marked improvement when investigating how extreme temperatures will change in UK cities when compared to less detailed models.”

The high resolution projections are being used by scientists working with local authorities to understand the effect these changes will have on their cities.

Dr Tyrone Dunbar is the Met Office Scientific Manager for urban climate services. He said: “The concept of urban heat islands – where urban locations retain more heat than surrounding areas – has long been understood. By combining our higher resolution projections with detailed information about where vulnerable people and buildings are in cities, we are helping local authorities and planners gain a far more detailed picture of the impacts their residents and visitors will increasingly face in future.

“The Met Office has been working with a number of local authorities to help inform their heat resilience strategies and planning. When they combine this information with their own mapping they gain a far more clear picture of where the areas of greatest risk are across the city, such as areas of densely populated older housing or if a care home is situated in particularly hot area. This ability to know where to focus effort is extremely important.”

Local authorities are keen to consider how they can make cities more resilient to extreme heat. Different actions can be carried out, such as retrofitting buildings to shade their windows or by increasing green spaces which can provide cool oases within the city. Councils are also making contingency plans to protect residents whenever heatwaves occur.

Victoria Ramsey is a Met Office climate services scientist working with local authorities. She said: “When it comes to emergency planning, we find that a lot of the local authorities we speak to have lots of plans for cold events and flooding events. But increasingly with climate change they are being forced to think more about how heat-related impacts will affect local communities.”

“We can see the impact extreme heat can have on communities from the heatwaves experienced by a number of our UK cities in recent years. For example, in June 2018 the greater Belfast area experienced high temperatures resulting in severe transport disruption to the rail network and schools having to send children outside when classroom temperatures got above 30C. This year saw the first ever amber heat warning over Northern Ireland and the high temperature record was broken three days in a row.”

The Met Office Urban Climate Services team have developed a set of factsheets about climate change for cities around the UK called the City Packs as part of the UK Climate Resilience programme, funded by the Strategic Priorities Fund. The team are currently developing an updated version of this product and are happy to hear from any cities that would like to be added to the shortlist to receive a City Pack – for info please contact urbanclimateservices@metoffice.gov.uk

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What is the chance of the UK experiencing a wetter than average winter?

 The current Three-Month Outlook covers the early winter period of November to January. It is not a daily weather forecast but instead focuses on the likely chance of the average temperature and rainfall amounts occurring during the three month period.

Our current Three-Month Outlook says that the period as a whole gives a 30% chance of being wetter than average and a 10% chance of being drier than average: leaving a 60% chance of the period being near average precipitation. Similarly, the current outlook indicates 45% chance of being milder than average and 10% chance of the period being colder than average and therefore a 45% chance of being average.

3 Month Outlook percentagesWithin the overall dominant weather type there will always be some variability. For example, a wetter than average winter will still include drier spells and a milder winter will always include cold spells. The Outlook gives no indication of where could see above average rainfall or heavier downpours and therefore when and where there will be impacts from rain.

Will Lang, Head of Civil Contingencies for the Met Office, said: “It is important to remember that the Three-Month Outlook does not attempt to provide a detailed forecast: instead, it gives the chance that the three-month period will be drier or wetter, warmer or cooler than average, as this information is useful to planners.

“The natural variation of our weather ensures that the day-to-day pattern will vary, and cold and wintry spells of weather occur even in mild winters. It is the overall pattern which is the important component of the Three-Month Outlook”.

The Three Month Outlook is based on output from a number of computer models, including the Met Office’s, which indicates the overall pressure pattern for our latitude to be consistent with a slightly positive phase of the North Atlantic Oscillation, which favours wetter and milder than average conditions.  La Niña, established in the tropical Pacific, also increases the chances of milder conditions later in the winter.

Long-range outlooks, such as the Met Office Three-Month Outlook are at the cutting edge of meteorological science, challenging the meteorological community the world over. While our understanding of the science behind atmospheric drivers, along with the technology to produce longer-range forecasts, is improving all the time, they are different to the highly accurate forecasts we are used to using on a daily basis.

The Outlook is produced for planners in government and business who make risk-based decisions. These users are aware of the uncertainties in this type of outlook and will include them in their decision-making process. Their skill or accuracy varies with the time of year and location, due to differences in the dependence of local weather conditions on global-scale atmospheric and oceanic processes. The UK is one of the most challenging regions for which to provide robust long-range information, as UK weather is dominated by the atmospheric circulation over the North Atlantic, which is highly variable.

The Outlook is updated and published monthly. It may change from month to month as the latest information with regard to the global drivers is assessed for their impact on the UK.

For a comprehensive forecast for your area check the 30-day and 7-day forecasts on the Met Office website, mobile app or following us on Twitter and Facebook. Keep track of current weather warnings on the weather warning page.

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Environmental Intelligence commitment at COP26

The Met Office and the University of Exeter have signed a landmark collaboration agreement at COP26, formally committing to further grow the work of the Joint Centre for Excellence in Environmental Intelligence.

Professor Stephen Belcher, Chief Scientist at the Met Office and Professor Mark Goodwin, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Exeter, signing the agreement as COP26
Professor Stephen Belcher, Chief Scientist at the Met Office and Professor Mark Goodwin, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Exeter, signing the agreement as COP26.

The agreement sees the continuation of the Joint Centre, created in Exeter in December 2020, which brings together world-leading researchers from the University of Exeter and the Met Office to pioneer the development of environmental intelligence research and deliver innovative, interdisciplinary education and training.

Environmental intelligence is a new field of knowledge that joins environmental data with artificial intelligence (AI) to create solutions to some of the most important challenges facing society today.

The Joint Centre aims to provide the meaningful insight needed to inform decision making around weather and climate to improve risk management and provide the expertise, skills and capability to fully use artificial intelligence to address the threats of climate change.

The Centre also collaborates with The Alan Turing Institute, the UK’s national centre for data science and AI, and provides a hub for research and training to support a community in environmental intelligence and promotes the UK as a leader in the field.

Complex interactions between the environment, climate, ecosystems, societies, economies and human health will all be under the microscope for the Joint Centre.

The signing of the collaboration agreement at COP26 represents a 5-year commitment, which will enable continued growth, development and ongoing impact of the Joint Centre in the coming years.

The Joint Centre aligns with the overarching goals of COP, with the development of a Climate Impacts, Mitigation, Adaptation and Resilience (CLIMAR) Framework creating decision-ready information for policy-makers, industry and the public to achieve net zero carbon emissions and adapt to protect communities and natural habitats.

Professor Stephen Belcher, Chief Scientist at the Met Office said, “It’s vitally important that we collaborate to address some of society’s most pressing issues. By working with the University of Exeter on the Joint Centre, we’re able to pool talent to use the latest technology and advancements to provide tangible information for policy-makers around the globe.”

Professor Mark Goodwin, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, at the University of Exeter said, “This long-term commitment to the Joint Centre is incredibly welcome and timely. I am excited to see the potential of Environmental Intelligence being unlocked in the coming years, and further development of innovative solutions to help tackle the environmental challenges faced by humanity.” The Joint Centre is holding its annual conference on 16 and 17 December 2021, with the focus on ‘Beyond COP26: The Road to Net Zero’. This virtual event will showcase the use of transformative technologies to support the UK’s Net Zero ambitions and explore opportunities to support the next generation of environmental and data scientists. Find out more and register on EventBrite.

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