Learn about the origins of the Met Office; key moments in our history, and where we are today.
In 1854 an experimental government department, which was later to become the Met Office, was set up under the Board of Trade. Its aim was to research the possibilities of forecasting the weather, mainly to protect the safety of ships and their crew at sea.
Distinguished naval captain, Robert FitzRoy, was chosen to head up the department. He had already enjoyed an illustrious career at sea, including commanding the HMS Beagle on its five-year world voyage which served as inspiration for Charles Darwin's defining work On the origin of species.
His job under the new department was to establish meteorology as a science and he set about developing the fundamental techniques of modern weather forecasting. He was spurred on by tragedies such as the sinking of the Royal Charter in 1859 - wrecked off the coast of Anglesey in a fearsome storm with the loss of nearly all of the 500 passengers on board.
FitzRoy developed the first storm warning service, achieved by using canvas covered frames in different shapes to alert ships to dangers - these were lit up by fires at night so they could give warnings at any time. He also pioneered techniques for forecasting weather such as synoptic charts, where weather observations taken at the same time were drawn on a map to aid forecasting - a technique still used today. FitzRoy's work laid the foundations for the Met Office's future at the forefront of this 'new science'.
From our early beginnings, we developed capabilities rapidly to create ever more advanced forecasts. Staying on the leading edge of technology has been central to this progress, and the introduction of wireless telegraphy on ships in 1909 was a major milestone. This allowed observations and forecasts to be quickly transmitted, significantly improving the service the office could offer.
During the First World War, it was recognised that understanding the weather and being able to forecast it could help provide a military edge, supporting operations and improving safety. For this reason, the office was taken under the wing of the Air Ministry, later the Ministry of Defence, after the war - establishing our status as a vital service for the UK's Armed Forces.
The weather was crucial to the Allied Forces's success for the D-Day landings in June 1944. General Eisenhower's chief meteorologist, Group Captain John Stagg, a Met Office forecaster, advised of a narrow 'weather window' for the operation to go ahead: "probably the only day during the month of June on which the operations could have been launched," President Truman later said.
In 1953, an intense area of low pressure and storm surge combined to cause catastrophic coastal flooding with huge loss of life along North Sea coasts in Britain and Holland. This led to the setting up of the Storm Tide Forecasting Service to give advance warning of such events in the future. It also prompted the planning and construction of the Thames Barrier.
In 1959 the Met Office bought our first computer, a Ferranti Mercury, capable of doing 30,000 calculations a second. This allowed us to take a major step forward with our forecasting, making numerical based predictions possible for the first time. From this point on, advancing technology and increasing computer capacity has played a key role in making our forecasts increasingly accurate.
In the 1960s, the satellite revolution provided a quantum leap in weather forecasting providing a bird's-eye of how the atmosphere moves. In 1977 the first European weather satellite, Meteosat 1, was launched - once again pushing forward the boundaries of meteorology.
In 1984 the Met Office was named as a World Area Forecasting Centre (WAFC) for civil aviation, one of only two centres along with Washington to provide forecasts for flying at high altitude. After the storm of 15/16 October in 1987, we began the National Severe Weather Warning Service (NSWWS) for the UK. This provides warnings to the general public to protect life and property from the effects of severe weather.
In 1990 the Met Office Hadley Centre was opened, creating a dedicated centre for research of the Earth's climate. It quickly established a world-leading reputation, producing pioneering research in the arena of climate change and providing vital advice to UK and world governments. By working with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, our expertise has helped shape global policy on tackling climate change and adapting to its effects.
As a world leader in providing weather and climate services, we employ more than 1,700 at 60 locations throughout the world. We are a Trading Fund within the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, operating on a commercial basis under set targets. We are recognised as one of the world's most accurate forecasters, using more than 10 million weather observations a day, an advanced atmospheric model and a high performance supercomputer to create 3,000 tailored forecasts and briefings a day. These are delivered to a huge range of customers from the Government, to businesses, the general public, armed forces, and other organisations.
This includes the Public Weather Service (PWS), which provides forecasts for the public to help them make informed decisions about their day-to-day activities. The National Severe Weather Warning Service is also a part of this, providing advance notice of weather which could affect public safety.
We are now working with the NHS to provide information on how the weather affects hospital admissions and helping them manage workloads. We can also help people with certain medical conditions, advising them when the weather could affect their health, helping them to stay healthy and out of hospital.
Our range of services for transport includes tailored advice on how the weather will affect roads, air and sea travel. We also provide detailed information to a broad range of businesses which can be affected by the weather, from how it will affect the demand for electricity and gas, to how it will affect sales of high street products.
Our work in the area of defence includes providing forecasts for military operations anywhere in the world, often supported by Met Office forecasters working in theatre with our armed forces. Our advice helps the military make strategic decisions, plan operations and safeguard service personnel from the worst effects of the weather, such as heat stress.
We also provide a range of services for the Government. This includes environmental monitoring advice on the predicted spread of insect-borne diseases such as bluetongue, to toxic or hazardous fumes, or even volcanic ash.
Climate change has become an increasingly important issue and our research continues to create an ever clearer picture of how it will affect the planet and our lives. This plays a vital role in providing evidence to support climate predictions which show the planet is now locked into at least 2 °C of warming and rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are required to ensure this does not rise further for future generations.
With this in mind, we have been providing tailored advice and services for a range of clients to help them begin adapting to the consequences of climate change. This has included projects focusing on defence, transport, energy, water supply, defence, flooding, health, and a host of other issues. We will continue to use our expertise to further understanding of climate change, as well as offering advice on how to mitigate the risks and adapt to its consequences.
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Last updated: 23 April 2012