Motorway sign

Keeping things moving

28 February 2011

As the run-up to Christmas 2010 proved, the weather can have a huge impact on the way our planes, trains and automobiles operate. But it's not just snow and ice that affect travel in the UK. Other factors can also play a major role.

When setting out on a journey by car, most people take a few minutes to consider how the weather might affect their travel. Snow, ice and bad visibility create obvious hazards, while rain can often cause tailbacks on busy roads. But a new risk model being developed at the Met Office looks into the impact of a less obvious factor on road networks - the wind - and, specifically, how it can affect vehicles.

The model is being developed by Jo Robbins, a Weather Impact Research Scientist at the Met Office, and is designed to help organisations such as the Highways Agency in their decision-making process, well before adverse weather strikes. Jo explains: "The idea is we will be able to give our partner organisations accurate predictions of wind conditions up to two days in advance. So, for example, we could help them prepare for strong winds affecting specific vehicles on the M6 at 2pm, in two day's time."

Understanding the elements

Many factors can influence how wind affects vehicles when they are on the road. It is important to factor in the type of vehicle - as high-sided trucks are affected more by wind than sleek sports cars. It's also critical to know the altitude of the road, the number of tunnels and bridges and how many lanes run along each carriageway. What's more, certain roads will have different traffic distribution at different times of the day.

All these factors need inputting into the model to provide the most detailed and accurate information possible. This information can then be used by organisations such as the Highways Agency - that may decide to divert large trucks away from the motorway, reduce the speed limit along a specific stretch of it, or place more incident support teams on the road to deal with any problems quickly.

From slipways to landslides

While Jo's model could provide a vital tool for helping keep motorists safe in high winds, she is keen to apply the theory to different situations, as she explains: "My aim is to prove that not only could the concept be used to assess the impact of wind on vehicles, it could also assess the risk of rain-induced landslides and how that affects vulnerable people in developing countries."

This is something Jo has recently begun studying through a three-year PhD, the research for which is based in Papua New Guinea. This is an area renowned for its major meteorological and climate weather patterns, including El Niño.

"Although the meteorology is fascinating; how it interacts with different communities to cause a small weather event that is barely noted or a catastrophe costing billions of pounds is even more so. Hopefully, this research will help us understand this, so we can help people around the world be better prepared for the weather conditions that are critical to them."

Back on home turf, Jo is waiting for her risk model to go through to the development stage. But once that's complete, she hopes it will be added to the Met Office's armoury of applications that all help keep Britain's traffic moving, whatever the weather.

Tailored forecasting

For many people in the UK, a forecast of heavy rain can mean the difference between carrying an umbrella and dealing with the massive upheaval of a flooded house. So, while the Met Office already offers a tailored meteorological service to many of its customers, it is constantly striving to make forecasts more specific for everyone, helping people make the choice between a brolly and a load of sandbags.

The Met Office helps energy companies anticipate changes in demand, and the health sector prepare for increased pressure on its services from illnesses affected by certain weather conditions. It also helps its partners and customers by placing forecasters within their organisations. For example, there are Met Office forecasters based in RAF planning rooms around the country.

Empowering people to make decisions, based on the weather, is shaping the direction of the organisation's future - and will, inevitably, make our services invaluable to more people.

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In brief