Observations constitute our primary source of information about how our climate is changing. They provide direct and unequivocal evidence of the impacts of climate change, are indispensable for the development of seasonal climate predictions, and are essential for validating and improving the models used to simulate future climates under different emission scenarios.
The Met Office operates many of its own observing networks, whilst also participating in global partnerships such as the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) to facilitate the sharing of global climate observations. Various climate variables are collected from different observing systems, quality checked, and brought together to obtain the best possible description of the climate. Alongside long-term climate monitoring – which you can see visualisations of in our climate dashboard – we also need high-quality observations to support the attribution and prediction of climate change-induced extreme weather events.
Wind observations equipment. Image: Crown Copyright
The urban environment
Globally, urban areas constitute one of the most significant challenges in current observational capability. The importance of this challenge cannot be understated – across the world an ever-increasing number of people live and work in urban areas and will be particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and heat stress. In the UK, heat-related mortality is projected to increase under a medium emissions scenario by around 257% by the 2050s, with this figure even greater in London1.
Met Office Foundation Scientist, Matthew Fry explains, “At the heart of this lies the fact that city environments aren’t typically compatible with the requirements we follow when siting our observation networks. Obstructions from buildings are rife, and there’s tarmac everywhere! Despite these challenges, we need observations to help us understand the complexities of the urban environment; develop and improve our urban-scale modelling capability, and to monitor changes over time.”
The growth of crowdsourced observations
In recent years, the advent of the ‘smart home’ has brought the capability for weather observations into the homes and gardens of a greater number of individuals. Alongside this, a plethora of internet-connected devices now have the capability to make and share meteorological observations, at spatial densities that would be simply impossible via conventional means.
Developing novel crowdsourcing methods is a highly active area of research. Some remarkable examples include deriving air temperature measurements from smartphone battery temperatures, and even detecting UK flood events using Twitter! Alongside these indirect crowdsourcing methods, there exists a wide variety of dedicated observational networks comprised of citizen-owned and operated devices. Companies such as Netatmo, Davis, and Oregon Scientific offer home weather stations and associated apps/websites that allow users to record their own observations and view those of others on online weather maps.
In 2011, the Met Office launched its own platform – the Weather Observations Website (WOW) – designed to enable the sharing of current weather observations from all around the globe, regardless of their level of detail or frequency. Observations might come from specially designed digital, scientific, or wireless weather stations, or alternatively from simply looking out of the window and recording the present weather situation. In 2020, WOW passed the remarkable milestone of 1.5 billion total observations and routinely receives over 25 million observations a month.
As well as being a great tool for public engagement, data from WOW have been used in operational applications. Following the development of quality control and bias-correction methods, data from WOW have been used in nowcasting applications, demonstrating particular use during severe rainfall events. Archived WOW observations have also proven useful in the detection of drought episodes in the Netherlands and urban climate research in Berlin.
How can I get involved?
Climate change is already affecting every inhabited region of the globe, with human influence contributing to an increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. Every observation is critical in monitoring and attributing these changes, with particular value provided by observations from data sparse regions.
The Met Office WOW platform is a free resource, with observations submitted there having genuine applications in both weather and climate science. If you have your own weather station you can register and upload data automatically to WOW, or alternatively you get involved by recording your own photos, observations, or weather impacts via the website.
1 Hajat S, Vardoulakis S, Heaviside C, Eggen B. (2014). Climate change effects on human health: projections of temperature-related mortality for the UK during the 2020s, 2050s and 2080s. J Epidemiol Community Health. 68(7):641-8. doi: 10.1136/jech-2013-202449.