A voyage to Antarctica to find yourself

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Met Office meteorologist Alison Davies has been one of four UK women experiencing the journey of a lifetime to Antarctica this month, with the Homeward Bound international expedition.
On her way home for Christmas, Alison took time on board her vessel in the Gerlache Sound, off the Antarctic Peninsula, to reflect on a life-changing voyage which has seen her develop her leadership skills and extend her knowledge of polar science and Antarctica.
In her journal, she says: “Outside, icebergs pass the portholes and every now and again there is a crunch as the boat breaks through a thin iceberg on our passage south. We are surrounded by snowy mountains and patches of rock peaking through snow and ice. Everywhere you look glaciers pour down mountains and end at the sea with crisp, vertical faces of ice. It is a magical place: silent, except for the noise of the boat and, very occasionally, a crash from newly-formed icebergs calving from the glacier front.”

Understanding emotional intelligence
Contemplating the leadership elements of the expedition, she added: “I am now on the final leg of the Homeward Bound expedition, which has the aim of developing women for leadership roles. So far we have focused on learning about ourselves: as to know how to lead others, you first have to know yourself.
“We have been encouraged to answer the following questions: Who am I; and what causes me to act the way I do? This challenge gave me quite an insight into how I act, particularly when I am stressed; and what I need to work on if I want to behave more constructively when under stress. There was a lot to digest and improve upon with the aim of developing more constructive styles enabling more effective leadership.
“From my Homeward Bound adventure, I realise that a big part of leadership is understanding emotional intelligence, including my own. The training developed a range of skills including how effective we are at ‘recognizing our own emotions and the emotions of others’. I was fascinated by how to use emotions in problem solving, as well as understanding emotions and how they evolve with time, and how to manage our emotions and the emotions of others.”

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The gentoo penguin is one of the more familiar species of Antarctic wildlife.

As well as the journey of personal discovery that Alison has been embarking upon, there is also the physical journey.  Alison continued: “After leaving Ushuaia, at the beginning of our journey, we crossed the infamous Drake Passage. I had heard many horror stories about the crossing, but we were treated to the ‘Drake Lake’, as the sea was very calm. It wasn’t long before we were exploring the South Shetland Islands and spotting our first penguins and icebergs. We visited many of the islands, including Deception Island which surrounds a volcano. Some of us went for a bracing polar plunge.”

Exploring the wildlife
During her journey to the Antarctic continent, which included a landing, Alison reported seeing a lot of sea ice. The wildlife is a highlight of any trip to Antarctica, and Alison’s was no exception. She said: “We saw three types of penguin: Adelie, gentoo, and chinstrap in abundance. We have also been treated to a display of multiple humpback whales feeding on krill, and many different types of seal, including elephant seals.
“Antarctica is an amazing location and perfect for when you need a moment of reflection or a sense of perspective on the world.”

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A female southern elephant seal takes time to inspect the expedition team during a shore visit. All pictures Alison Davies

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Met Office top rated app of 2016 helps you plan for Christmas

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The Met Office app allows travellers to make informed choices about the weather when planning their journeys.

Since it was launched six months ago, the Met Office app has been awarded 4* rating in the app stores, and it has now been listed in Google Play as one of the Top Apps of 2016. Using Met Office world-leading weather prediction, the app delivers accurate forecasts and severe weather warnings straight into users’ hands, wherever they are, for up to seven days in advance.

google-play-02-13With many people travelling this Christmas to spend time with friends and family, being aware of forecast weather can help them travel more safely. According to a recent Met Office survey, from slipping in bad weather to experiencing a car accident, four out of ten people across the UK have undergone a winter-related mishap. To help your Christmas travel planning, the Met Office has upgraded its popular weather app ahead of the festive season.

“In the run-up to Christmas, with people rushing to attend functions and visiting family and friends it can be all-too easy to dash out of the house before considering the weather,” says Dee Cotgrove, Executive Head of Media and Communications at the Met Office. However, our app upgrades means that it has never been easier to check the forecast. “Everyone wants to be prepared for Christmas, but we should also be thinking about preparing for winter weather too.”

This week the Met Office has released an update giving users the ability to customise the home screen of the app to show the next seven days of weather for their chosen places, or the next few hours. This gives you the freedom to view the weather in the way that is most useful to you, depending on what you are doing. During the Christmas period you can keep track of the weather across a number of locations that are important to you, using the day view during the countdown to Christmas or the hourly view, such as on Christmas Day itself, to see when it’s best to head out and stroll off those mince pies.

Customer feedback

Part of the app’s popularity has evolved from the Met Office’s strong focus on understanding the needs of their users. The developers review every piece of customer feedback are continuously testing updates and new features of the app with users.

Nikki Peckham, Senior Digital Product Owner at the Met Office, added: “As we continue to learn about our users we continue to develop and improve the app. A unique feature of the Met Office Weather app is the presenter-led video forecast which is updated three times a day. Users also like our new weather warnings map and our real-time alerts of potentially hazardous weather. Early in 2017 we will provide an interactive map featuring forecasts and observations.”

app-imagesKey features of the app include:

  • Multiple locations giving forecasts for your home, place of work and where friends and family live
  • Toggle to view hourly or daily forecast for chosen locations
  • National forecast video
  • Probability of rain, sleet, snow, hail, and drizzle
  • UK National Severe Weather Warnings

This week also marks the start of our Christmas app campaign.

You can find the Met Office app by searching ‘Met Office’ in app stores.

 

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From debate to action: early warnings for protection and resilience in Africa

Gavin Iley, our Head of International Crisis Management and Resilience describes recent developments in Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) in Africa.

It is just over a year since Storm Desmond caused severe flooding in parts of the UK, and eight months since heavy rain and flooding in a number of East African countries resulted in the displacement of almost 232,000 people and killed 271¹. When I posted on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) blog in September I highlighted the impact of flooding on the world’s most vulnerable communities. That post related to a conference being delivered by Wilton Park, the Met Office and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), entitled ‘Flooding in the Greater Horn of Africa: building effective early warning systems’. I expressed my hope then, that the event would stimulate debate and dialogue in support of ongoing collaboration and lead to a real difference for communities at risk from the serious impacts of flooding.

Image supplied by Wilton Park

Image supplied by Wilton Park

It’s safe to say that the conversations and discussions did indeed address some of the challenges faced and the need for early warning systems (EWS) to be more effective in the Greater Horn of Africa (GHA) region. To summarise those discussions, Wilton Park have produced a report detailing the main points and conclusions, and I have highlighted some of the key themes below.

Sharing good practice

The conference provided an excellent opportunity to share good practice between the delegates, who included representatives from national meteorological and hydrological services (NMHSs) in the region, intergovernmental institutions, the World Bank and non-governmental organisations. Various current projects are highlighted in the report, including the WMO’s Severe Weather Forecasting Demonstration Project, aimed at strengthening the capacity of NMHSs to deliver improved forecasts and warnings of severe weather. Details of the Department for International Development’s WISER (Weather and Climate Information Services for Africa) programme are also shared. The Met Office is one of two fund managers for this programme and is involved in a number of projects in East Africa focussed on improving and developing user-led operational weather and climate information services.

Improving early warning systems

To those of us experienced in disaster risk reduction, it is evident that the chain of those involved in early warning systems in the region is long and complex. The disaster risk management process often results in the slow dissemination of warnings, particularly to remote and rural communities. The challenges of meeting the needs of these vulnerable communities means that users (those receiving the forecasts and warnings) are often not sure when and how to respond to warnings of severe weather. The discussions held at the conference concluded that five key areas require improvement to develop effective early warning systems in the region:

  • coordination between NGOs/donors, nations, national organisations, NMHSs and national governments, and national governments and users of early warning systems (EWS)
  • communication with communities through education, between suppliers and users of EWS, and using the media
  • institutional capacity developing technology and data, investing in leadership development, and sharing good practice
  • ownership at intergovernmental, governmental, national and community level and
  • empowerment of the user ensuring they understand what action can be taken and that action is taken at the right time

What next?

While our discussions at Wilton Park highlighted the need to improve and enhance early warning systems in the greater Horn of Africa, they also demonstrated the continued relevance of the UNISDR (United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction) EWS checklist. Therefore one concluding thought: 2017 will see the first Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) since the historic agreement of the Sendai Framework for DRR in 2015. A great deal has changed since the EWS checklist was first developed and, thanks to the Sendai framework, the global DRR outlook also looks very different. Given the significance of 2017 to the global DRR community it feels like the right time to review the cornerstone of much of our work, the UNISDR EWS checklist, and bring this up to date to ensure it remains relevant to us all for the next 10 years.

¹ Source: United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)

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Discovering women’s leadership potential in Antarctica

Alison Davies, a Met Office meteorologist, is one of 76 women scientists from across the world chosen for a challenging expedition to Antarctica. Working at RAF Leeming in North Yorkshire, Alison is one of only four women from the UK to be chosen for The Homeward Bound expedition – a project to promote women with a science background into positions of leadership.

dsc_6075-alison-daviesAlison said: “To say that I am excited by the expedition is an understatement! I realise that I am incredibly lucky to travel to a continent that I have dreamt of visiting since I was a child watching Antarctica documentaries on television. As scientists we will all have a chance to take part in some amazing research. However, studying Antarctica and the advancement of polar science is only one of the aims of Homeward Bound. By utilising the challenging environment of Antarctica, a key objective is also to focus on women in leadership roles and explore how having women at the leadership table might give humanity a more sustainable future.”

At 24, Alison is at the start of her meteorological career and she will be one of the youngest participants within the project. She added: “This expedition will give me a much better understanding of climate change issues as well as giving me an international network of contacts among women with interests in this field. I also hope the expedition will give me longer-term benefits for my leadership capabilities that will improve my performance as I progress in my career at the Met Office. I am ambitious, but I realise that reaching a senior position needs a range of skills and experience and I think this expedition will equip me with a unique set of skills and experiences.

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Before her visit to Antarctica, Alison took advantage of snowy conditions in the UK to help prepare for her polar adventure. Pictures: Robert Cook.

“Working with so many successful and inspiring fellow female scientists will be an experience to remember and draw upon for the rest of my life.”

The expedition takes place during December. Setting sail from Ushuaia in Argentina, the team will spend three weeks exploring the Antarctica Peninsula by boat while learning about leadership skills and the scientific significance of the continent. The expedition leaders hope to visit bases belonging to many different nationalities on the Peninsula to gather differing views on climate science. Alison added: “We will also explore some rarely-visited areas and ones where some of the first intrepid explorers such as Shackleton landed.”

The Homeward Bound idea originated in Australia, where it has been developed by Fabian Dattner, social entrepreneur, leadership expert and activist for women. As well as Dr Jess Melbourne Thomas, co-founder of Women in Polar Science and a marine ecological-modeller working in the Australian Institute of Marine and Antarctic Science and the Australian Antarctic Division.

alison-davies-3Fabian Dattner said: “The Homeward Bound project is not only focusing on the astonishing expedition to the Antarctic but will be a ten-year outreach initiative that promotes women with a science background into positions of leadership affecting policy around the sustainability of our planet.”

Felicity Liggins is the Met Office STEM outreach manager. Commenting on the opportunities created by the Homeward Bound project for encouraging women to work in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), she said: “It’s 2016 and in the UK women still make up only 21 per cent of the workforce in occupations related to science, technology, engineering and maths. To help us improve this, it’s vital that girls at school and women throughout their careers see that leadership roles are open to them.

“Role models can really help in this, and the Homeward Bound project is a great opportunity for early career scientists like Alison to gain new skills, networks and confidence, eventually becoming role models themselves and providing inspiration to the next generation.”

As a major STEM employer, the Met Office aims to increase understanding of the real-world applications of these subjects.

 

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Storm Desmond – one year on

Storm Desmond was the fourth named storm of the 2015/16 winter season.  It brought severe gales with gusts of wind up to 81 mph together with record-breaking rainfall leading to flooding across parts of northern England.

It was associated with an exceptionally mild and moist air mass over northwestern parts of the UK.  Desmond was named on 4 December 2015 and tracked to the north west of Scotland on the 5th and 6th. A very slow-moving trailing front brought heavy rain to southern Scotland, northwest England and parts of Ireland, with Cumbria and Lancashire receiving the most severe impacts.

While the Cumbrian coast received less than 25 mm of rain, 200–300 mm fell on the Cumbrian fells and Honister Pass recorded 341.4 mm of rainfall in the 24 hours up to 6pm on 5 December 2015: a new UK record.  A new 48-hour record (from 0900 to 0900 hrs) was also set with 405 mm rainfall recorded at Thirlmere in just 38 hours.

Figures show it was the wettest and mildest December on record for the UK (dating back to 1910) (the mildest for England, Wales and Ireland, and the fifth mildest for Scotland).

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National Flood Resilience Review

Following the flooding events of last winter and as part of the National Flood Resilience Review (NFRR) the Met Office was asked to develop extreme rainfall scenarios that were scientifically valid and plausible.

Our novel and innovative approach was endorsed by the NFRR’s Scientific Advisory Group and corroborated by results from the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting.

The state-of-the-art Met Office Hadley Centre climate model produced over 11,000 monthly rainfall scenarios for six large regions in England and Wales and for the current climate. These were used to sample many more cases than are available from existing observational records, including several hundred extreme regional rainfall events that are meteorologically possible but lie outside what has been experienced based on our observational records.

The chance of extreme events like these happening was then estimated. The results suggest there is a 1% likelihood every year that winter monthly rainfall totals could plausibly be 20% higher than recent past extremes in some parts of the country and in other areas up to 30% higher than recent past extremes. Over any of the large regions there is also around a 10% chance in any given year of existing monthly rainfall records being matched or broken.

An infographic summarising recent advancements in assessing flood risk using innovative weather and climate science.

An infographic summarising recent advancements in assessing flood risk using innovative weather and climate science.

This was used to produce enhanced rainfall data, which was run through the river models of six case studies chosen by the Environment agency as a stress test of their existing flood risk assessments. Using the techniques developed for the flood review, the Met Office will be looking to work with partners on developing a more integrated flood risk modelling approach.

Radar

Meanwhile a major upgrade of the UK radar network for meteorology is almost complete providing more accurate, detailed data essential for successful forecasts and crucial for issuing warnings of heavy rainfall events.

Weather radar gives a live picture of precipitation (rain, hail, snow) present in the atmosphere and many may be familiar with radar images of rainfall from TV weather bulletins.

Behind the scenes, radar data are used to continuously update short range “nowcasts” and are used in our numerical weather models to improve forecast accuracy.  Richard Bennett, Senior Project Manager said: “Scientific advances mean we can now capture the size and shape of raindrops as well as their composition (ice, water, snow), which will lead to improvements in accuracy of rainfall measurements, particularly during high impact weather events. ”

The changes will help ensure the Met Office continues to play a vital role in providing governments, commercial customers and the public with timely and essential weather forecast and real-time weather information.

 

 

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Met Office wins social media award

The Met Office Name Our Storms campaign has won an award for the Best Public Sector Social Media Campaign

The Social Buzz Awards bring together individuals and companies at the forefront of social media offering an opportunity to highlight some of the best social campaigns.

This award highlights what a key role social media played in the launch of the Name Our Storms campaign and continues to play as the Met Office’s pilot scheme starts its second year.

The Met Office joined forces with Met Eireann last year to launch the pilot project to name wind storms that were expected to affect the UK and Ireland.

The Met Office asked for storm name suggestions via social media and thousands flooded in.  As the scheme got underway with Storm Abigail in November 2015 the names were quickly adopted by the public, the media, and the responder organisations. The first storm of the 2016/17 season Storm Angus was named on 20 November 2016.

Over the course of the 2015/16 season 11 storms were named, and it has already demonstrated that storm-naming can make a big difference to the communication of severe weather. Storm Angus on 20 November 2016

Derek Ryall, Head of Public Weather Service at the Met Office said “By naming storms more people were made aware of the approaching threat of severe weather and were able to act on this information. A YouGov survey based on the first seven storms showed that 55% of those surveyed took steps to prepare for stormy weather after hearing that a storm had been named. People were therefore better informed.”

The Social Buzz Awards are now in their sixth year.

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Can space tech help measure the weather?

This summer the Met Office was able to take advantage of a nanosatellite being used as a technology demonstrator by the European Space Agency (ESA) to gather weather information. The satellite, GomX-3, was built by the Danish CubeSat developer GomSpace. Using technology not tested in this way before, our scientists were able to use this satellite to gather wind and temperature observations over a large part of the globe.

The data was collected from messages sent routinely from aircraft back to Air Traffic Control. This experiment has proven that by exploiting existing technology in new ways it is possible to obtain weather data for locations which may be data sparse. In the future this data could be fed into numerical weather models to help improve the accuracy of weather forecasts.

The ESA technology demonstrator, GomX-3, was designed to collect Automatic Data Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B) messages to track aircraft from space using a nanosatellite. Collaboratively GomSpace, ESA and the Met Office agreed on an extended mission which would involve reprogramming GomX-3 whilst it was in orbit around the Earth to collect additional parameters required to calculate wind and temperature observations. These are called Mode-S Enhanced Surveillance (EHS) parameters. The reprogramming was successful and data was collected for two weeks over a large part of the globe. The locations of all of these derived observations are shown below as the red dots. The blue lines show the track of the satellite during this period.

gomx-3-satellite-trackThe Met Office has been investigating this aircraft derived data method since 2011. Mode-S EHS is used by Air Traffic Management to obtain situation information from aircraft. This data combined with the position ADS-B data allows wind and temperature to be calculated at the location of the aircraft. There are currently 6 ground based receivers located throughout the UK and Channel Islands collecting the data and deriving up to 6.8 million observations of wind and temperature per day from aircraft in flight across UK airspace. This is an increase from just 10000 aircraft observations over the UK per day!

A large part of the work over the last 5 years has been around understanding the quality of the observations. Comparisons to our high resolution operational model have been conducted on every model run since 2013. We’ve also made use of the Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurements and compared the observations to those made by the research grade instrumentation on the aircraft. The quality of the wind observations has been found to be comparable to more traditionally sourced aircraft data, while the temperature information requires some additional manipulation.

The increasing number of observations is important to drive the mathematical models used in weather forecasting. The resolution of the models is ever increasing; over the UK the Met Office now uses a model with a grid spacing of 1.5km, everyday this model uses around 250,000 upper air wind observations. This data is used to nudge the model of the atmosphere closer to what is being measured, ultimately leading to improvements in the forecast. To keep pace with improvements in models, novel methods of gathering observations must be used like those explored in this mission.

Edmund Stone, Observation Scientist at the Met Office said: “This information will be useful in the future in increasing the global observation network coverage, both from the ground and also from orbit. The project has also shown that it is feasible to use small, relatively low cost satellites for the collection of data for atmospheric measurement”.

These results have changed our view of data availability, demonstrating that there is Mode-S EHS/ADS-B data available from significant areas, including data from every continent (excluding Antarctica). It is estimated that there is in excess of 100,000,000 observations available globally each day that are currently not being collected or used by the meteorology community. The challenge now comes in trying to harness this resource.

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Autumn and November 2016 statistics

We’ve seen a wide variety of weather this autumn from the warmest day of the year to snow; although early statistics (1 September – 30 November) show overall has been a fairly average season.

Despite September proving to be the equal-second warmest for the UK since records began (1910) and the warmest day of the year at 34.4°C being recorded on 13th September in Gravesend, autumn temperatures have only been slightly above average for the UK as a whole.  The notably warm September has been partially offset by a cold November and lower temperatures are likely to continue to the end of the month.

It’s been a slightly drier autumn then average, despite some periods of heavy rain mainly due to a series of low pressure systems in November.  The UK as a whole has so far had around three quarters of expected rainfall, with Scotland seeing 67% of its average while East and North East England seeing close to their long term average with 94%.

Sun-autumn-2016

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Northern Scotland looks like it will have had its third sunniest autumn on record (dating back to 1929). However overall the preliminary autumn figures show all areas, aside from southern England, have had slightly above average sunshine hours.

Autumn 2016

(1 Sept – 30 Nov)

Sunshine hours Mean Temperature
Actual    hours % diff from average Actual °C °C diff from average
UK 300.9 110  9.8 0.3
England 328.2 108  10.7 0.4
Wales 297.4 107  10.1 0.2
Scotland 263.1 116  8.2 0.2
N Ireland 262.6 103  9.5 0.1

November

It’s been rather a cold November, with temperatures widely around a degree or so below the 1981-2010 average. Scotland had the largest deviation from the average with mean temperatures -1.6°C lower than the 4.9°C long term average. Scotland has also had its sunniest November since records began in 1929 with 65.8 hours of sunshine.

Northern Ireland’s lowest recorded temperature of the year so far was recorded this month with -7.5°C at Katesbridge on 24 November. The third lowest temperature for the UK as a whole, -12.1°C, was recorded at Braemar on 21 November.

nov-sunshine-2016Nov-rainfall-2016

As well as cold settled conditions, November also had the first named storm of the year with Storm Angus impacting large parts of Southern England and Wales. Strong wind and heavy rain affected these areas from 17 to 22 November due to a series of low pressure systems. The strongest wind gust recorded was 80 mph at Langdon Bay in Kent on 20 November, while Exeter saw 108.6mm of rain between 19 and 22 November, nearly 80% of the average rainfall expected for Devon in November.

However, despite spells of heavy rain, the month has been on the dry side for many with the UK as a whole having had 89% of expected average rainfall to date, and Northern Scotland just 63%. Meanwhile the Midlands have seen 28% more than the average for November.

November 2016 (Provisional) Sunshine hours Rainfall
Actual    hours % diff from average Actual mm % diff from average
UK 74.6 130 107.9 89
England 80.3 124 103.5 117
Wales 71.3 126 133.4 82
Scotland 65.8 144 113.1 68
N Ireland 76.4 142 87.0 72

The sun has been shining for many with the UK having 30% above average sunshine hours, and Northern Ireland topping the regions long term average by 42%.

You can keep up to date with the weather using our forecast pages and by following us on Twitter and Facebook, as well as using our new mobile app which is available for iPhone from the App store and for Android from the Google Play store.

For more information on preparing for winter, please check the Met Office Get Ready for Winter pages.

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Winter Outlook for December 2016 to February 2017

Today the Met Office has released its long-range outlook for December 2016 to February 2017, highlighting the risk of a cold start to the winter for the UK.

Latest observations from around the globe and long-range weather prediction systems suggest that the early part of the winter period is more likely than usual to be cold. This implies a heightened risk of wintry weather during December and into January.

Overall, it should be stressed that more normal winter weather, with temperatures ranging from slightly below average to mild, is still marginally more likely. Nevertheless, the risk of cold conditions at the start of winter is now greater than it has been in recent winters. More details of specific weather over the coming month is available in the Met Office 30-day and week-ahead forecasts.

The graphic below illustrates the current outlook for temperatures in early winter. For a normal year the most likely outcome is in the near average category.  This winter, however, the probability is shifted towards below average temperatures, with the most likely outcome – the widest part of the curve – remaining above the ‘cold’ category.

seasonal_forecast_graphic

Doctor Jeff Knight, who leads the production of the Met Office long-range outlook says: “This time last year our outlook gave advance warning of the risk of the very mild, stormy and wet start to winter that was linked to the flooding in Cumbria, but this year indications are very different. Weather patterns with more frequent northerly or easterly winds are favoured, which increases the risk of cold weather.”

Our winter weather patterns respond to influences from across the globe: Currently, the winds circulating around the North Pole in the stratosphere – between 10 and 50 km in altitude – are much weaker than normal and this is expected to weaken the westerly winds across the Atlantic.

Furthermore, tropical East Pacific Ocean temperatures are slightly below average, just above the threshold for La Nina.  Although these cool conditions also tend to impede the UK’s usual westerly winds in early winter. Warmth in the North Atlantic Ocean near Newfoundland and record low Arctic sea ice are also contributing to the same tendency, favouring a colder-than-average early winter.

Professor Adam Scaife, head of long-range prediction at the Met Office, explains: “The stratosphere, tropics and Arctic sea ice are all trying to push our weather towards becoming colder over the next few weeks.  Although it is not guaranteed, our long range predictions and those from other forecast centres suggest an increased risk of cold weather patterns early this winter.”

Later in the winter, there appears to be a shift towards less risk of cold conditions. More detail about this period will be available in updates to the Met Office long-range outlook which will be released as winter progresses and our 30-day and week-ahead forecasts will provide advance warning of specific weather events throughout the winter.

You can keep up to date with the weather using our forecast pages and by following us on Twitter and Facebook, as well as using our new mobile app which is available for iPhone from the App store and for Android from the Google Play store.

For more information on preparing for winter, please check the Met Office Get Ready for Winter pages.

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An expert’s view on unusually warm Arctic temperatures

This year has seen some exceptionally low extents of Arctic sea ice as well as periods of much higher than usual temperatures in the region.

Ed Blockley manages the Met Office Polar Climate group, whose responsibilities include monitoring the increases and decreases of Arctic sea ice. Commenting on the current state of sea ice he said: “Sea ice extent in the Arctic is at an unprecedented low value, and 2016 has been a notable year in particular.”

Throughout the year, the extent of sea ice in the Arctic rises and falls, approximately following the seasons. During March climate scientists expect to witness the greatest extent of Arctic sea ice, the so-called winter maximum, while the corresponding summer minimum occurs during September. Satellite measurements of Arctic sea ice extent have been taken regularly since 1979.

Ed Blockley said: “This March we witnessed the lowest winter maximum on record of 14.52 million square kilometres. This was followed by a mild spring and a record low monthly extent for May. The summer minimum in September wasn’t at record-breaking levels but at 4.14 million square kilometres it was notably low, as it was the joint second lowest year on record after 2012.”

Although the September event was noteworthy, it is what has happened since which has been causing concern for scientists. Ed Blockley added: “After the minimum, the extent of sea ice started to increase as more ice began to form. Around 1st October the freeze slowed down considerably and by the third week in October the extent was lower than it was at this point in 2012 – the year with the lowest September minimum on record.

“Since then Arctic sea ice extent has been at unprecedented record low levels for the time of year.”

Met Office forecasts over the middle of November show some relatively high temperatures in the Arctic which are supported by those observed temperatures available in the region. In particular on the 16 November we were forecasting temperatures above -5°C over most of the Eurasian Arctic and of over zero Celsius in the Barents Sea as far north as Svalbard. Temperatures this warm in November are up to 20°C above the long-term average.

Commenting on these temperatures, Ed Blockley said: “Daily average temperatures measured at Svalbard airport over October and November have been between around 5 and 13°C above the long-term (1981-2010) average. The daily maximum and minimum temperatures recorded over November have also been higher than normal and have been close to record November highs for about half of the month so far.

“November 2016 has been very warm in Svalbard and as things stand, if the remainder of the month continues to be this warm, then 2016 could very well overtake 2009 to become the warmest November on record there.”

There is quite a lot of daily variability in the temperatures recorded in Svalbard because the air temperatures depend heavily on which direction the wind is coming from and hence whether it passes over sea ice, snow-covered land, or open ocean.  At present the sea ice is very low and the ocean surface relatively warm around Svalbard.

Speaking about the impacts of these temperatures on Arctic sea ice, Ed Blockley continued:

“Between 16 and 20 November 2016 the total Arctic sea ice extent actually declined, instead of there being net freezing over the Arctic as would be expected. Although extraordinary this is not unprecedented as a similar, although smaller, reduction in Arctic-wide extent was observed at the start of November 2013. The decline this year resulted from a reduction of the ice cover in the Barents Sea – in the North Atlantic sector – and the Bering/Chukchi Sea – on the Pacific side. This seems to have been caused by relatively warm and moist air being transported into the region from the south.”

Near-surface air temperatures in the Arctic are unusually warm at present, as they have been for the entire autumn. Some forecasting centres have reported observations of up to 20°C warmer than normal. Ed Blockley added: “This will have been partly caused by there being reduced cooling of the atmosphere from the surface because there is less sea ice, meaning that air has more contact with the relatively warm ocean. The sea ice extent is currently at a record low level in the Arctic and the sea surface temperatures are up to 3°C Celsius above normal.

This autumn has seen some rather unusual patterns of atmospheric circulation in the Northern Hemisphere. Persistent southerly winds have brought warmer air northward into the Arctic from both the North Atlantic and across the Bering Straits from the North Pacific.

As well as causing the ice to melt by increasing the surface air temperature, this persistent southerly flow has also acted to push the ice northwards preventing it from advancing to lower latitudes.

Commenting on the future state of Arctic sea ice this season, Ed Blockley added: “This decline is most likely not going to continue, and in fact the most recent observations show ice extent increasing slightly again. Over the whole winter more ice will be formed but this warm spell means that it is possible there will be less ice in the Arctic at the end of winter.”

Looking at longer term trends, September or summer Arctic sea ice extent has decreased by over 13% per decade since satellite records began in 1979. This is the equivalent to losing an area of sea ice greater than the size of Scotland each year. With this trend in mind, there is widespread speculation about the date when the Arctic will be ice-free in the summer.

Ed Blockley said: “The events happening now don’t mean that the ice will all be gone next year because the rate of melt is highly dependent on the weather conditions that occur in the Arctic in summer. However it will mean that the Arctic sea ice will start the melt season from a disadvantaged position and so would be more susceptible to melt if the conditions are right for it. The latest estimates from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) are that we may see the ‘ice-free’ Arctic summer minimum in the 2030s.”

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