Kate Turnbull - Aerosol Scientist

Dr Kate Turnbull, Aerosol Scientist

10 February 2011

The Met Office employs professionals and experts who are constantly expanding the boundaries of weather and climate prediction. Here we meet one of them...

Since joining the Met Office as a trainee forecaster in 2003, Kate Turnbull's career has been both wide and varied. Whether developing and maintaining atmospheric research instruments for use on an aircraft or working in her current position in the Aerosol Research Group, two days have rarely been the same for Kate.

Career highs

Weather forecasting runs in Kate Turnbull's family. It was her Dad, a forecaster for the Navy, who first sparked her interest in the subject. So it was a natural step for Kate to join the Met Office where she eventually specialised in marine forecasting. But, having developed an interest in measuring the atmosphere during her PhD where she built a device to measure water vapour from balloons Kate decided to return to her more scientific roots as an Instrument Scientist at the Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurements (FAAM).

Head in the clouds

FAAM is a collaboration between the Met Office and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), set up to provide a modified aircraft which gathers data for atmospheric research. As an instrument scientist, Kate was responsible for maintaining, calibrating and operating the instruments on the aircraft during flights. One of the biggest challenges she faced was in the summer of 2010 when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in Iceland. Kate and her colleagues quickly got the aircraft airborne and were able to measure the location and concentration of the ash. This vital information was passed on to the Civil Aviation Authority that used the data to determine when and where they could open airspace; and, ultimately, get stranded passengers off the ground.

Science crew (including Kate, forth from left) and the FAAM BAe 146-301 aircraft in Alaska

Science crew (including Kate, fourth from left) and the FAAM BAe 146-301 aircraft in Alaska

Through her work with FAAM, Kate has travelled to many exotic locations. She measured rainforest emissions in the tropical heat of Borneo and monitored the radiation off snow in the freezing temperatures of Alaska both of which brought unique challenges for aircraft and instruments alike: "I've faced a lot of challenges hanging underneath aircraft wings and fixing things in all weathers. A lot of the time, I learn on the job, and I'm always gaining new knowledge. That's what makes my job so interesting."

Staying grounded

In Kate's current role as an Aerosol Scientist, she uses observations from the FAAM research aircraft to understand the impact of aerosols on atmospheric radiation. Aerosols are tiny particles suspended in the air that scatter and absorb the sun's radiation and can modify temperatures and the characteristics of clouds. The Met Office uses Kate's measurements to help validate and improve the performance of models used to predict radiation in the atmosphere called radiative transfer models. These models, in turn, are used in weather and climate predictions.

"Throughout my career, I've always pursued whatever interested me at the time. But my current role is my favourite so far. Right now, I've got my ideal job."

Recently, Kate has been working on a project to study how emissions from London and traffic on the M25 influence aerosol and gaseous concentrations in the atmosphere. Called the Emission M25 (EM25) project, it involved collecting measurements over a series of circular flights around London in June 2009. Kate has since been analysing this data to gain a greater understanding of how humidity affects aerosols in the atmosphere and how this might also affect visibility on, for example, the roads. This may seem a little less exciting than flying over the rainforests of Borneo or icy plains of Alaska, but Kate has a different philosophy.

"Throughout my career, I've always pursued whatever interested me at the time. But my current role is my favourite so far. Right now, I've got my ideal job."

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