Simon Brown is Director of Services with the Met Office. He leads a directorate which supplies Government, and a host of organisations with the weather forecast. Here, he shares his thoughts on one of the Met Office’s most historic weeks.
It has been one of the most remarkable and busiest weeks ever for the Met Office in its 168-year history. Three storms named in the one week, two Red Weather Warnings and some of the highest wind speeds we’ve seen recorded in over 30 years.
Our forecasts and warnings, briefings to government and a host of organisations and our communications to the media and the public, helped protect people across the UK from the worst impacts of storms Dudley, Eunice and Franklin.
As Services Director at the Met Office, my role brings much social discussion and humour from my friends about the weather, but I can tell them confidently that Met Office technology is second to none.
Government, councils, transport operators, the NHS, businesses, and citizens were able to take early and pre-emptive action to stay safe. Our warnings help to inform decisions to be made to close schools, suspend flights, trains and ferries, close bridges, postpone appointments and deploy flood defences.
In recent years, huge investment in our supercomputing capability has enabled us to increase the detail of our Global and UK weather models. We also have improved data assimilation and use more sophisticated satellite and observational data. Use of ensembles, (where we forecast the weather based on a series of probabilistic forecasts) or multiple runs, of forecasts using these models, has given us much greater confidence in outcomes. This in turn allows earlier identification of risks such as those associated with severe storms, which can be refined closer to the event. This, resulting from the long-standing and tireless efforts from our numerical weather prediction (NWP) modelling team of scientists and technologists, has led us to the point where we can now identify storms and issue warnings days before they are seen to be visibly forming on satellite imagery.
As storms Dudley, Eunice and latterly Franklin blew in and the country braced and braced again as to their effects; several days previously, behind the scenes in the Met Office a team of highly skilled professionals had already swung into action.
Our expert operational meteorologists predicted the storms over five days before they happened and, even ahead of the naming of Dudley and Eunice, email briefings to government through the Cabinet Office were being shared.
As well as keeping the public up to date with the weather, the Met Office also supplies information to a host of organisations including the UK Government, as well as the Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the Environment Agency, Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Natural Resources Wales, RNLI, local authorities and emergency services across the country, energy providers, road and rail operators, the Civil Aviation Authority, National Air Traffic Service, and airports including Heathrow. The information we supply, allows them to make decisions relating to travel and public safety as well as deciding on the possible flooding impact – it includes detailed technical data and analysis specifically for their needs.
So, when were the storms first forecast?
One of the key headlines in the UK three-month outlook for winter (Dec, Jan & Feb), issued in late November 2021 to planners in government and business, stated that there was a “moderate increase in the potential for impacts from strong winds later in the period”. This was based on output from a number of long-range simulations of the atmosphere coupled with expert meteorologists’ knowledge and experience of several known large-scale global drivers of the weather.
The signs and patterns had therefore long been indicating that February could see an increased chance of wet and windy weather.
Ten days out, our meteorologists had indeed picked up on such a signal for increased storminess across the UK from the middle week of February. When looking this far ahead, we forecast the weather based on a series of probabilistic forecasts – known as ensembles. This is where our meteorologists were able to identify the signal that the following week could be particularly stormy across the north.
Come Monday morning the simulations had moved to clearly identify continued very windy weather for the rest of the week. Confidence had increased enough for our team, in consultation with the Civil Contingencies Advisors team – who lead our briefing with the Cabinet Office, devolved governments and local authorities – and our media team, to name not one but two storms for the coming week – Dudley and Eunice. This was the first time that two storms had been named at once since the naming scheme began in 2015. Not only that, Eunice was named four days before the storm was even expected to develop, let alone bring its impacts. The severity of the forecast impacts were such that two rare red National Severe Weather Warnings were issued for Storm Eunice, behind Eunice on Friday 18 came Franklin, named on the Sunday for the impacts expected over Northern Ireland during the early hours of Monday morning. This was the first time that three storms had been named within the same week.
Thankfully, whilst it is still windy, Franklin has now dissipated and, as we all contemplate repairing any damage we may have suffered – what’s predicted in the coming days? Well, the strong jet stream is continuing to drive weather systems across the North Atlantic, bringing more wet and windy weather for most this week. We have therefore issued a Yellow Warning for much of Scotland for wind and snow.
I am proud to recognise the fantastic work that’s gone on during this extraordinary weather week at the Met Office. While it is truly tragic to hear that lives have been lost, along with flooding and widespread damage to buildings, the tireless work of our meteorologists and all our staff has allowed early action to be taken, helping to protect many people from the impact of the weather.
Since the Met Office was created in 1854 my predecessors have built a strong legacy and we keep evolving. Our ability to produce better forecasts is never more crucial with climate change and an increasingly fast, dynamic and personalised society, I’m proud to lead our Services Directorate and help ensure citizens, industry, and government have increasingly accurate forecasts and information to make better decisions to stay safe and thrive.