Hazel Thornton, Manager of Climate Adaptation team
10 December 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 starting at the Met Office as a Stratospheric Data Assimilation Scientist in 2002, the focus of Hazel Thornton's work has shifted considerably.
Her initial role focused her attention on a very specific area of meteorology - how to make best use of humidity observations in the upper atmosphere to improve daily weather forecasts. But now, as a manager within the Climate Adaptation team, her focus is firmly on the practical side of climate science - and how climate knowledge can be applied in a society that is vulnerable to weather.
"I enjoy understanding how climate science can be applied to everyday matters - so my job in the Climate Adaptation team, is an exciting opportunity."
As part of this role, she advises a variety of government and commercial customers, helping them explore the variety of risks posed by our variable and changing climate. Hazel's academic background is well suited for this. Having studied Environmental Science at the University of East Anglia, she went on to read a Masters in Atmospheric and Ocean Science in Paris, understanding the features and processes of the Earth system and analysing their impact on our weather.
Hazel thrives on the challenge of understanding the relationship between the weather and its impact on such things as infrastructure and environmental systems. At the outset of any project for a customer, her team looks at how weather conditions - such as heavy rainfall or heatwaves - could affect the customer's assets and daily operations. Then, as she explains: "We try to mathematically quantify those vulnerabilities and use our climate projections to see how the industry may be affected in the future."
The applications for this kind of work are broad so Hazel has worked with many different sectors. Two projects she is currently leading are for the UK rail industry and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). High temperatures can cause speed restrictions on railway lines and, if critical, rails can buckle causing trains to derail. Heavy rainfall can also disrupt journeys due to flooding of lineside equipment and, in the longer term, erode the foundations of bridges.
Working with rail engineers, the team established key impact thresholds, identifying temperatures and rainfall quantities responsible for disruption. Projections of climate suggest an increase in the frequency of disruption. Consequently, Hazel's team is now exploring how engineering adaptation options could reduce future delays.
Hazel is working with the energy industry and DECC to better understand how natural climate variability and climate change could impact on renewable energy.
Balancing energy supply and demand during these periods will become more difficult with increasing wind power. This work is therefore helping to inform Government policy on renewable energy.
Rising to the challenge
Due to the broad scale of climate models, there are limitations to how detailed the information can be.
"The challenge is to provide robust science-led guidance that usefully helps the customer understand their current and future risks."
The team is developing novel presentation techniques and tools to clearly present the risks and their uncertainties to the customer. For the Climate Adaptation team, one thing is certain: with continuing high-impact weather events around the globe and the societal demand for better resilience, the team will be busy. But for Hazel?
"It's exciting to be constantly challenged by customer requests. My personal goal is continue developing novel approaches to help society make the most intelligent use of weather and climate projections."