The forecast is for clear skies ahead… ideally

posted on 27th June 2018

Jon Dutton, aviation business manager for the UK Met Office, explains the critical role that the forecaster plays in ensuring the nation’s aviation operations remain safe from the worst of the weather

Dutton and his team at the UK Met Office provide a wide range of services for the UK aviation community, primarily its airports but also airlines and other agencies. All those services rely on the expertise of the Met Office’s approximately 2,000 employees – about 1,200 of whom work at its base in Exeter, Devon – and the bewildering array of equipment and technology it brings to the 21st Century business of weather data collection and forecasting.

The Met Office is officially what is known as a Tradin g Fund. Although it has certain set responsibilities – vis-a-vis the aviation industry these relate to its commitments to act as a service provider on behalf of the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and are carried out in accordance with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) regulations – it is also expected to provide a commercial return on its work. This it does in the aviation sector by providing specific services to a wide range of customers in the form of in-depth information and advice, sometimes supplied by Met Office employees embedded in a client’s own operation.

Its basic commitments and core responsibilities involve offering forecasts and warnings for the nation’s airports (and, by extension, the carriers that use those gateways). Thus, Dutton explains, it offers Terminal Area Forecasts (TAFs) to approximately 55 UK airports. The TAFs are provided to airports large and small, taking in the full range of operational intensity from London Heathrow to Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides. The TAFs incorporate such data as wind conditions, visibility and cloud base; in other words, the sort of meteorological conditions knowledge of which is vital to safe and effective flight planning. They might include weather forecasts for as far as 30 hours’ in advance.

The Met Office also provides airfield weather warnings for 108 UK airports. This data relates to snowfall, frost, severe winds and so on, meteorological hazards of huge importance to airport operators and their airline visitors.

Low-level weather charts are supplied as part of the Met Office core service, as is a range of data related to upper atmosphere flying conditions. Indeed, the UK Met Office, known in this role as a World Area Forecast Centre (WAFC), is one of only two in the world (the other is in Kansas in the US) to offer such information on conditions in the atmosphere above about 25,000 feet – data that is, again, vital for effective flight planning for the world’s commercial airlines. Together, WAFC London (based, somewhat paradoxically, in Exeter) and WAFC Washington (in Kansas!) cover the entire globe, while each can also step in to cover the entire world’s higher atmosphere should the other centre go down. The information is provided under an agreement with ICAO and is updated every six hours.

Another part of the Met Office service for the aviation industry is its role as one of the nine Volcanic Ash Advisory Centres (VAACs) in operation around the world. It will track any volcanic eruptions and forecast the movement and effect of any volcanic plumes – its area of responsibility in this regard includes Iceland, a not unimportant duty of late.

Global coverage, but the devil is in the detail

Sourcing data on weather conditions including air temperature, humidity, cloud, rainfall, wind speed and rainfall right around the world from sources as varied as sea buoys, ship reports, ground-based instruments, data collected from commercially operating aircraft, satellites and even the BAE 146 it jointly operates alongside the National Environment Research Council (NERC), the UK Met Office has to maintain a presence right around the world while also working very closely with other national meteorological agencies around the globe.

Not only must it cover the UK, it must also forecast for locations as far afield as British Overseas Territories such as the Falkland Islands, and even for the British Antarctic Survey team based in the field at Rothera in the cold of the far south.

The UK Met Office may employ 300 expert research scientists, but the work of worldwide data collation and forecasting couldn’t be achieved without their efforts being supported by massive computing power. The world’s weather is modelled every six hours by super computers at the Exeter headquarters of the Met Office. The data collected and interpreted can be accessed by customers within the aviation community at a price; but that price might seem small, when compared to the effects on airfield operations of severe weather. London Heathrow has chosen to source as much of the Met Office’s expertise as it can, and has contracted with the agency to embed a team of meteorological experts within its own operations for a period of not less than five years (see Airside Update of Airside International, Autumn 2014 issue).

In this, and in other cases, as far as is possible the Met Office is looking to work “in partnership” with the aviation community, Dutton notes. By collaborating closely – and proactively – not just with airports, but also with airlines and with NATS (the UK’s primary air navigation service provider), it seeks to minimise the disruption to aircraft operations through the UK caused by any severe weather events.

Warmer weather

As for the future, well, for the Met Office, global warming is a fact, a trend backed up by statistical evidence, Dutton insists. Certainly, in the UK, the trend is towards warmer weather and the projection is that average annual temperatures will continue to rise.

Of course, no one is saying we won’t have cold winters, or even cold summers, on occasion, but understanding long-term weather trends is important for the aviation community. Airports may well want to know for the sake of long-term infrastructure or equipment investments, for example. Low-lying gateways may be most concerned about the risk of flooding.

Thus, one aspect of the Met Office’s role seems to relate to the need for accurate long-term forecasting – no easy thing. Another priority for the agency is widening its customer base, and it is looking outwards to foreign airlines active in British skies as well as seeking to work more closely with carriers in regards to forecasting the weather over areas other than British territory (very possibly, in the latter case, working alongside partner organisations in both the meteorological and aviation industries).