Atmospheric Dispersion Research and Response

Developing, validating and implementing dispersion science for emergency response activities.

The release of both natural and man-made contaminants into the atmosphere can present numerous hazards to human, animal and plant health and infrastructure/vehicles. The degree of impact is dependant on the contaminant and its characteristics, the concentration and the sensitivity of the receptor (e.g. a person). Dispersion science is the study of the release, movement, dilution, loss and impact of such contaminants. Dispersion modelling is the use of computer models to represent the numerous complex processes that contribute to these processes and is the means by which we can predict the impact of a released contaminant over distances ranging from a few hundred metres to the entire globe.

The Met Office has a long history of research into, and providing advice on, the atmospheric transport and dispersion of contaminants, which extends back to the First World War. During the 1960's with the advent of computers the Met Office was again at the forefront in developing the first simple dispersion computer models. However, it was the Chernobyl incident in 1986 that triggered the start of major developments around the world of sophisticated atmospheric dispersion models. The Met Office Numerical Atmospheric-dispersion Modelling Environment (NAME) was then born and became operational in 1993.

The Atmospheric Dispersion Research and Response group carry out a very active combination of research, model development, consultancy and support of emergency events associated with atmospheric dispersion. Our primary tool is NAME which is continually developed and applied to an ever-growing range of atmospheric transport and dispersion problems, ranging from research activities to numerous emergency response activities such as nuclear/radiological releases (e.g. Fukushima, 2011), volcanic eruptions (e.g. Eyjafjallajokull, 2010), industrial fires (e.g. Buncefield oil depot fire, 2005) and the spread of animal diseases (e.g. foot-and-mouth disease and bluetongue). NAME is now a hugely flexible and sophisticated atmospheric dispersion model.

An ability to deliver sound advice for releases of all these types of problem/event requires NAME to be able to represent a wide range of physical and chemical processes and reactions. When linked to the Met Office's world leading numerical weather prediction model, the Unified Model, it is possible for NAME to predict the spread of atmospheric contaminants over distances ranging from a few hundred metres to the entire globe. This enables the Met Office to help inform and advise for events anywhere on the planet.

Key aims

  • To carry out research in the field of atmospheric dispersion.
  • To develop and improve NAME.
  • To develop and improve the Met Office operational emergency response atmospheric dispersion modelling capabilities and services.
  • To provide expert support and advice to emergency responders, agencies, UK Government and the international community in the event of a release of contamination to the atmosphere.

Current projects

  • Improvements to the representation of effects of urban environments on dispersing plumes within NAME.
  • Developments in volcanic ash forecasting including extensive validation against observation data.
  • NAME code optimisation and parallelisation. Rapid turnaround of predictions for emergency response activities is vital.
  • Production and use of probabilistic dispersion forecasts. This involves quantifying the source, meteorological and impact uncertainties.
  • Numerous NAME developments, validation and documentation activities.
  • Scientific collaboration and developments with a number of agencies (e.g. Health Protection Agency) and UK universities (e.g., Reading, Edinburgh and Cambridge).

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Last updated: 29 July 2014