Professor Nigel Wood, Head of Dynamics Research
28 August 2014
From daily data for weather forecasts to long-term simulations for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, Professor Nigel Wood's work underpins the Met Office's continual drive to provide robust and reliable products that are used around the world.
Nigel joined the Met Office straight from studying mathematics at Cambridge. His academic interest in fluid dynamics, combined with a preoccupation with the weather (brought about by his love of sailing) led naturally to him pursuing a career at the UK's home of meteorology. He undertook a PhD supervised jointly by the Met Office and University of Reading, and the numerical model he developed during that time - focusing on atmospheric flow over hills - is still widely used today.
In 1999, Nigel joined Dynamics Research, the department he now heads up that is responsible for all aspects of the atmospheric dynamical core, part of the mathematics that underpins the Met Office Unified Model (MetUM) - see box out.
The dynamical core is responsible for solving the set of equations that predict various aspects of the atmosphere such as wind speed, pressure and temperature. This is combined with predictions of other factors including radiation and turbulence, so that ultimately the MetUM can provide a detailed and reliable forecast.
Looking after the dynamical core is a process of constant revision and refinement. Nigel's small team of seven works not only on maintaining the current version, but also researching and developing future dynamical cores. In his career so far, Nigel has worked on three groundbreaking Met Office systems: New Dynamics, ENDGame and GungHo.
When he started in Dynamics Research, Nigel's main focus was helping to bring the latest dynamical core, New Dynamics, into operation in 2002. "It was an exciting time," Nigel recalls, "because, as its name suggests, New Dynamics was radically new. It was the only operational model of its kind in the world."
Almost immediately after New Dynamics was up and running, the team undertook a close critique of the system. "We set off on a path of research to address the issues we found," explains Nigel, "exploring ideas, doing paper-based analysis, building prototype models that would be more accurate, robust and efficient." The next version of the dynamical core became known as ENDGame, which stands for Even Newer Dynamics for General atmospheric modelling of the environment. It is planned to become operational this summer.
The development process took about eight years, and only then could they start to combine the functioning standalone dynamical core with the other elements of the MetUM, collaborating with other teams to run it with real, rather than idealised, data. In March 2012, the Met Office decided to take ENDGame forward to operation, a phase that would take a further two years.
For projects of this scale, Nigel recognises the importance of collaborative relationships. Vital in making ENDGame a reality was the close working relationship with Professor John Thuburn at the University of Exeter and then the rigorous testing, evaluation and further development work of Dr David Walters and his Global Atmospheric Model Development team within the Met Office.
GungHoDespite what the name implies, when ENDGame is officially launched this summer, the work will still be far from over. Dynamics Research are already developing the next dynamical core, known as GungHo, which stands for Globally Uniform Next Generation Highly Optimised. There can be no standing still.
"Supercomputers are evolving all the time," says Nigel, "and we recognise that our models will have to be fit to run on machines that might have hundreds of thousands - or even millions - of processors."
So, working across teams in the Met Office, and with partners in academia through NERC (Natural Environment Research Council) and STFC (Science and Technologies Facilities Council), the aim is to develop GungHo so that it maintains the functions of ENDGame - but also solves the equations in a way that allows for far higher resolutions in future forecasting models.
It's this real-world application of mathematics that spurs Nigel on, nearly 30 years into his career: "I'm still doing maths day-to-day, continuing to learn and then seeing it come to fruition in a very practical way. What could be more inspiring?"
The Met Office Unified Model
The Met Office Unified Model (MetUM) is the seamless numerical modelling system developed and used by the Met Office. It works by solving equations to predict how the atmosphere will evolve across a range of time and space scales, thus enabling the prediction of meteorological events - from weather forecasting to climate change.