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On hand when disaster strikes

1 August 2011

Earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, wildfires, landslides... the Met Office is there round the clock — ready to help whenever high impact natural events occur around the world.

While most people associate the Met Office purely with weather and climate predictions, our remit extends far beyond this. With our global forecasting capability and working with partners, we play a vital role when disasters strike - even if the event, at its source, is not directly weather-related. Over the last two years alone the Met Office has been involved in assessing the affects of the radiation leak caused by the Japanese earthquake in March 2011 and the smog created by wildfires in Russia in July 2010.

Met Office data is used by the UK Government and relief organisations around the world and feeds into critical decisions, such as when to keep roads and airports open - or whether to evacuate British citizens from disaster zones. Much of the critical information is produced by the Operations Centre at the Met Office which provides a 24/7 service. As Chief Forecaster, Nick Grahame says, "We monitor information as it comes in from around the world. We're always ready to react at short notice because, in this role, time is critical."

Support following the Japanese earthquake

The Met Office was recently put to the test when the worst earthquake in 140 years hit Japan earlier this year - creating a huge tidal wave that caused extensive damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

"Using our global forecasts, we were able to provide immediate advice to UK Government on any aspect of weather that could affect their international contingency planning," says Nick.

"With so many British people living in Japan, our Government was keen to get additional information from the Met Office.

So using the same computer model that forecast the transport and dispersion of the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud in April 2010, we were able to provide advice on the risk of radioactive particles being carried by north easterly winds towards Tokyo."

Help in Haiti

When a catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti in January 2010 it devastated the island. To compound matters, among the many thousands of victims were forecasters from the Haitian National Meteorology Centre. Haiti's forecasting capabilities were severely damaged, leaving surviving infrastructure - and population - vulnerable to wind and rain.

So alongside other weather services from around the world, the Met Office provided forecasts from nearby Martinique and passed on crucial weather information to relief agencies.

One such agency was an international charity called ShelterBox. They deliver emergency shelter and lifesaving essentials to families immediately after a disaster. ShelterBox became the Met Office's corporate charity two years ago and Haiti was the first time the two organisations worked on a significant project together.

As Nick explains, "ShelterBox does fantastic work in disaster stricken regions - and we're pleased to play our part by providing forecasts to their teams in the affected areas. Since Haiti, we've been involved with them in other catastrophic situations around the world."

In fact, immediately after the earthquake hit Japan, the Met Office provided services to ShelterBox - who were quick to arrive on the scene.

"We gave them top line verbal or emailed information, followed by daily operational forecasts. Word soon got round, which has prompted requests from other charities such as Christian Aid and Oxfam to use our services."

Looking to the future, a focal point for hazard information and advice is being developed with UK's leading public sector agencies. This means that a number of agencies will be working together to provide the best advice on impacts associated with hazards. For example, the Environment Agency provides flooding knowledge while seismic activity research is carried out by the British Geological Society. The aim is to combine the skills of everyone involved and create a clearer picture of how to handle high impact natural events around the world.

Seeing through the ash cloud

Volcanic ash from the Eyjafjjallajökull eruption in Iceland impacted on European and North Atlantic airspace in April and May 2010. As the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) mandated Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC) for volcanic eruptions originating in the north-eastern Atlantic, the Met Office London VAAC was responsible for monitoring and forecasting the movement of the volcanic ash.

As Volcanic Ash Coordination Programme Manager, Ian Lisk says, "The explosive mix of magma, gas and ice in this particular eruption resulted in largely fine ash particles. This made the volcanic ash sometimes difficult to see on the satellite imagery especially when the ash was below twenty thousand feet."

Other volcanic ash observation methods were therefore used, including the use of low power LIDAR (vertically pointing laser beam) from around the UK and conventionally used for measuring cloud-bases. With some fine tuning, expert interpretation and clear skies it was possible to use these LIDAR to provide an assessment of the presence or not of volcanic ash layers."

Eyjafjjallajökull

During the Eyjafjjallajökull incident, the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) working with aircraft engine manufacturers and European transport ministers defined, volcanic ash concentration safety thresholds levels for European and North Atlantic airspace. These thresholds supplemented the global ICAO standard of 'avoid all ash'.

Responding to this new requirement we produced supplementary volcanic ash concentration charts depicting concentration contours of 200 and 2,000 then latterly 4,000 micrograms per cubic metre. These charts were used by European airspace authorities as the basis for informing their flight safety related decisions.

Since last year, building on the many lessons learnt, new initiatives are helping the international aviation community to be better equipped to respond to future volcanic eruptions - something that happened sooner than some expected, as Grimsvötn - another Icelandic volcano - exploded in May 2011.

Read more about our involvement with monitoring the Grimsvötn volcano.

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