'Business-like' Met Office weathering the storm
With a staff of 1,100, the Met Office is a major Westcountry employer. Its deputy director, Dave Underwood, tells business editor Liz Parks about its role, from working alongside the military in Afghanistan to helping to reduce hospital admissions in the UK – and why Michael Fish may have got it wrong back in 1987.
With recent rain and snow again proving how much our everyday lives remain tied up with the weather, the Met Office plays a key role in monitoring and forecasting the rain, wind, snow and sun that can sometimes be encountered during the same day in the UK.
Already, in the space of a short walk up the stairs, its Kelso-born deputy director for defence, Dave Underwood, has (accurately, it turns out) predicted the likelihood of snow on Friday.
Founded in 1854, the Met Office started life as part of the Board of Trade, with the main aim of forecasting the weather to protect ships and their crews at sea. After the First World War, when an accurate weather forecast was an asset to the military, it became part of the Ministry of Defence before, in 2011, going back to its roots under the umbrella of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
This time a decade ago, preparations were under way for the organisation's relocation from Bracknell, to Exeter, in what remains one of the most significant inward investments the Westcountry has ever seen. Swapping a total of 17 largely outdated buildings across Bracknell for a single, purpose-built site near junction 29 of the M5, 1,100 of the Met Office's total staff of 1,800 are based in Exeter, working mainly in well-paid science and technology roles.
The remainder are based at locations ranging from Aberdeen and Edinburgh to Cyprus, the Ascension Islands and the Falkland Islands.
"Exeter is by far the most significant centre," says Dave.
The city was chosen after an initial long list of around 80 locations was whittled down to ten, before making it on to a shortlist of four serious candidates along with Norwich, Bracknell and Reading. It was selected above the others for its transport and communications links after a concerted effort by local authorities to woo the organisation to the South West. Exeter was also a favourite with staff.
"When we did the final analysis, Exeter was the one that stacked up the most effectively for the Met Office."
The Met Office has provided a huge boost to the Westcountry's economy, both directly, with almost 20% of its £70 million-a-year spend being directed at SMEs in the region, and indirectly, by putting it firmly on the map as a centre of scientific excellence.
Along with public sector organisations such as Exeter College and the University of Exeter and private sector firms including ATASS and Alcoa Howmet, the Met Office is a member of the Exeter Initiative for Science and Technology – which is seeking to build a critical mass of such organisations in the city.
"We have a real coalescence of science and technology organisations," added Dave, hailing the city's strong SME base and its new science park as key strengths.
"It's about creating an environment where new businesses in the science and technology communities can really thrive and grow. Exeter City Council is strongly committed to this and so are many of the big organisations like the Met Office – there's a synergy to be gained there."
A Met Office global weather forecast involves trillions of calculations per second carried out by its supercomputer, which works at the speed of a petaflop. This, Dave explains, is one times ten to the power of 15 calculations every second. Or, to put it another way, if everyone on the planet used a calculator to carry out 180,000 calculations per second and the resulting information could be processed in the same second, they would still not quite keep pace with the computer.
And the accuracy of forecasts has been further enhanced in recent years, says Dave, by an increase in scale. In the last 15 years, the Met Office has increased the resolution of its global forecasts from 80 to 90km between grid points to around 18km. Similarly, for its UK forecasts, the resolution has increased from around 12km between grid points at the time of the Boscastle flooding in 2004, to between 1.5 and 4km today.
In practice, Dave says this means the odds of predicting such a freak weather event are increased because scientists have data available for a far smaller area. "It makes a Boscastle-type event visible."
And, sketching out a rough map of the UK and northern France, he points out that this is probably what happened to Michael Fish when he famously downplayed the Great Storm of 1987.
"If you go back to 1987, you're looking at a global model resolution of about 120km. The advice that Michael Fish would have got from our guidance centre at the time, he thought it was going to the south [he points on the map to France] and that's why he would have been confident about his predictions. It was only one point's difference in a model."
Best known as a source of information for the public, the Met Office's services have a range of wider – and perhaps lesser-known – applications.
After a research project that was undertaken with the NHS, it provides forecasts tailored for those with health conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that are affected by weather conditions. The idea is that if sufferers know that weather conditions will exacerbate their condition, they can avoid going out on certain days. This means fewer hospital admissions, saving taxpayers' money.
And although the Met Office is no longer part of the MoD, it retains close links with the forces, with 80 staff members of an RAF reservist unit which supports the services by providing forecasts. At present, four members of the Mobile Meteorological Unit are deployed in Afghanistan.
With the bulk of its work undertaken for public sector organisations including these, Defra and the Department for Transport, the Met Office derives £163 million of its £196 million turnover from the public sector. It is set up as a trading fund, meaning it doesn't receive this income in the form of a subsidy, but rather as income for services provided to those departments.
A further £32 million of revenue comes from contracts with the private sector. For example, for forecasts provided to renewable energy companies about likely wind speeds at the potential locations of offshore wind farms. And energy companies might pay for forecasts regarding the possibility of ice that could damage their power cables and disrupt supply.
The Met Office is also one of just two agencies to be used as a World Area Forecast Centre – the other is the American National Weather Service – providing data to commercial airlines about general weather conditions as well as the movement of jet streams. This information can affect things like flight times and the amount of fuel an aircraft would carry.
Dave says the margin of error for a Met Office forecast on a typical flight between the UK and Singapore is 35 seconds – although he hastily adds that this doesn't take into account external factors such as air traffic control.
For transatlantic flights, forecasts about the exact location of the jet streams in the upper atmosphere mean that airlines can reduce the amount of fuel they carry because they know the flight will gain momentum from strong winds.
"There are regular occasions when an aircraft doesn't carry enough fuel to reach its destination in still air, but because of the accurate predictions of where the jet streams are they are able to reach their destination with a good safety margin of fuel."
Although the Met Office's headcount has remained stable over the last few years, it, like just about all other public and private sector organisations, has been affected by the recession.
"Our customers are being challenged, some of them very directly. There have been a number of public sector cuts and, like any organisation, they have to look to their cost base. We're a part of that cost base and they really have to look hard to see what they can afford. Just like any good supplier, it's our job to be able to respond to that," says Dave, acknowledging that, since he joined the Met Office in 1998, it has changed its focus to become "a far more business-like organisation".
Collaboration has also become more of a focus, with the Met Office working closely with organisations such as the Environment Agency, Defra and the Natural Environment Research Council to pool data so that it becomes more useful.
For example, in the last year, the Met Office has, together with the Environment Agency, opened the Flood Forecasting Centre at the Met Office to combine their meteorological and hydrological expertise in issuing accurate flood warnings.
The Met Office's Hadley Centre is at the centre of climate research in the UK and aims, among other things, to predict likely climate changes over the next 100 years.
It's a complex subject that has provoked a huge amount of debate, but Dave says that for him, personally, there is no doubt.
"When I look at the science that's not just done at the Met Office, but at many other well-known institutions, I believe climate change is happening and I believe the rate at which it's happening has been significantly enhanced by man's activities, particularly over the last 80 to 90 years, where we have seen an industrialisation of the world to a level that has dwarfed anything that has previously happened."
Dave admits that for him the Met Office's move to the South West has been a particularly good one, allowing him to practise his hobby of scuba diving more often than he did in Bracknell.
The father-of-three, who lives in East Devon, is also a governor of Exeter College, a director of the University of Exeter's Innovation Centre, director of the Devon Environmental Business Initiative, chairman of the West Hill branch of the Royal British Legion and a governor at West Hill Primary School.
And it's his involvement with these outside organisations that he often says teaches him as almost as much as his day job. "Sometimes you can be quite surprised when you learn something in an environment you don't expect to – that can be quite good fun."