How do meteorologists add value to the forecast?

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Meteorologists have been producing weather forecasts for the aviation industry for decades. These include forecasting for an area to allow pilots to plan a route avoiding hazards or for a single site like an airport, where knowing the strength of a cross wind means the difference between landing safely or not landing at all.

Much of my own forecasting career was spent on airfields briefing the weather to pilots planning cross country routes and giving accurate wind, visibility and cloud base forecasts for take-off and landing. Advances in science and computing have changed the nature of weather forecasting for aviation but a skilled meteorologist can still add significant value to the wealth of data available.

Supported by continual improvements to numerical modelling

Numerical modelling of the atmosphere continues to improve, aided by increasing amounts of real-time weather information collected from satellites, aircraft and a wide range of ground-based sensors. It means the big stuff, like predicting the movement of a broad band of strong winds and rain, can be relied upon several days in advance. Where the meteorologist of today can really add value is in the smaller scale details, such as the onset of low cloud or fog.

Filling the gaps

Small changes in conditions; a subtle shift in low level wind or a short break in a cloud sheet, can tip the balance towards a risk of low cloud or poor visibility. Likewise, a thunderstorm threat may only be realised if surface heating or humidity levels reach a specific threshold. This might be dependent a few elements coinciding and the exact location of this will need minute by minute monitoring by a meteorologist who knows what to look for. Despite all the advancements made, significant weather events will still happen within the gaps, in both time and space, not picked up by computer models. The meteorologist looks for where things aren’t quite as their models are predicting and then forecast the likely impact on our aviation customers.

Data interpretation

The other key area where the meteorologist adds value is in interpreting the overwhelming amounts of digital information in a way that clearly explains the impact of expected weather on aviation operations. Airline and airport operations teams are very busy dealing with the complexity of their day to day operation. Having a meteorologist who knows how this all works and is able to lean across and say “you might want to have a look at the airports in this area, I think there’s a thunderstorm likely to develop just as your aircraft is due to arrive” can make the difference between a tricky day and a really bad day in the office.

Ric Robins – Head of Meteorology and Science

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