Engineering weather prediction tools

Engineers and scientists are developing sophisticated means of tracking storms, tornadoes and hurricanes. With improved weather prediction tools come earlier warnings; hopefully saving lives.

Weather satellite image Julian Heming is a tropical cyclone specialist at the Met Office. He helps develop and maintain forecast models that help predict tropical cyclones using data from complex observing networks around the world.

Working alongside engineers in the space industry, these two groups are building and exploiting satellite systems that can produce more and more reliable and timely weather data.

"It's a challenging technology, and there's a lot of cross fertilisation (of ideas) between engineers and scientists," says Lothar Schwarz, operations preparation manager at the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT) [new window].

Weather prediction - a bridge between scientists and engineers

John Eyre's team at the Met Office's Satellite Applications department is the bridge between the scientists and engineers. It is their job to research and develop the application of satellite data, and work with the engineers to decide what equipment should be carried on the next generation of satellites. Many of the team members have experience in designing and building satellite systems themselves.

"We engage with EUMETSAT to help plan future satellite systems," he explains. "Our main goal is to improve the weather forecast. Part of that is having better forecasting models, models that represent what goes on in the atmosphere in a more faithful way.

"Many of us come from an infrared radiation, microwave radiation background; we're generally physicists," he continues. "Satellites are so important to us because they provide data from all over the world. Unfortunately they don't measure temperature, humidity and wind: they measure the infrared, microwave and visible radiation coming out of the top of the atmosphere. Our job is to interpret those measurements, work out what they tell us about the wind, temperature, humidity and cloud and sea temperatures."

Engineering satellites of the future

That may be the team's most immediate task, but they are also continuously working with EUMETSAT [new window] on the satellites of the future. Programmes are planned well ahead; a satellite project takes ten years to come to maturity and then it runs for a further 15. Eyre's team has to prepare for the new instruments that will be on board the next satellite, in order for the scientists to be able to best exploit the data they'll produce.

They're also are in charge of advising EUMETSAT of the most important instruments the next generation of satellites should carry. These are the geo-stationary satellites that'll be ready in 2016, and the polar-orbiting satellites of 2018.

"We're at the stage of asking what instruments should we fly on those satellites? What should their specification be? We're not engineers, we don't build the things, but because we're the users of today's data, we know its strengths and weaknesses. We're in a good position to say what instrument advances we need to see.

"Then come the talks and the trade-offs. The engineers are prepared to build anything we ask, but there is the issue of cost. We look at what we need, what they cost and come to a compromise somewhere in the middle."

Improving weather forecast models

Its all about crystal ball gazing - the team has to think how their applications are likely to develop over the next ten to 20 years. How will numerical weather prediction evolve? What are they going to need in order to monitor the climate? It's all about considering how technology and needs are likely to develop, which they then have to translate into best-suited instruments for the satellites.

Once this decision is made they then move on to working out how best to exploit the data each instrument will produce. These tools then are passed onto the scientists and the job of weather prediction is in their hands.

Currently, there are two main strands to technology development, both of which will help predict tropical storms, allowing the opportunity of earlier warnings to people at risk.

"The first is the development of the forecast models. These are being constantly updated with new and more accurate representations of the atmosphere's physical and dynamical processes along with new techniques to analyse data and the ability to process it at higher and higher resolutions as computer power grows," says Hemming.

"The second strand is observations. New and innovative techniques for obtaining observational data around the globe are being developed including the huge increase in the use of satellite data in the last decade or so, which plugs many of the holes in the traditional observing network.

"Continued developments in these areas will enable further improvements in tropical cyclone track forecasts to be seen and will also help us to move towards better predictions of tropical cyclone intensity changes, which are currently not very skilful," he adds.

Engineering's role in weather forecasting

Engineering skills play a role in both the building of these satellites and instruments and analysing the data they produce.

"The satellite programmes are very complex, and each of us in our field of expertise plays a small part in the final masterpiece," says Jean-Claude Philippe, satellite system engineering manager at EUMETSAT. "Just to give you an idea: the manpower for the MSG (Meteosat Second Generation - a series of four geostationary meteorological satellites, along with ground-based infrastructure) adds up to four to five thousand years! I feel like a bee in a beehive," he enthuses.

Perhaps this will be your field of choice and you'll go on to build instruments for the satellites of the future. Perhaps instead you'll go on to develop software that provides a new way to analyse medical data, which in turn helps to find a cure for Malaria. Whatever field of engineering you focus on, you'll find that your work will affect people in a positive way.

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