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Dr Andy Saulter

A growing number of shipwrecks first prompted the Board of Trade to establish the Met Office. Over 160 years later, we meet Andy Saulter, Surge Waves and Met Ocean Projects Manager, whose work still centres around protecting the livelihoods – and lives – of mariners and coastal communities.

Growing up in Cornwall, Andy has a longstanding connection to the sea. He remembers his love of surfing beginning at 14. But he’ll also never forget how the Penlee Lifeboat disaster rocked his local community.

Following his first degree at the inland University of Bath, he was drawn back to the ocean, studying oceanography in Southampton ahead of a spell working in the offshore oil industry as a hydrographic surveyor. After that came a PhD and research into the effects of sediment transport processes on coastal erosion at Plymouth University, before embarking on his Met Office career. And he’s been wrapped up with waves (almost) ever since.

Mapping the ocean

Now manager of the Surge and Wave Modelling team in the Ocean Forecasting R&D (OFRD) group, Andy’s team develops ocean surface wave models that predict sea states – put simply, the characteristics of waves. That information then flows into services such as the Shipping Forecast produced by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. His team’s surge model, on the other hand, maps the effects that strong meteorological forces can have on tide predictions. “If a major storm pushes into the North Sea during a period of spring tides, the resulting storm surge can cause unusually high water levels – which could lead to coastal flooding,” Andy explains.

Safety in numbers

The models feed into Met Office Safety of Life at Sea services, used by everyone from fishermen deciding whether it’s safe to work, to a family organising a weekend boat trip. And the data within the models can make a life-saving difference.

“If a severe storm is on the horizon, the potential for a rapid deterioration in conditions at sea or for coastal flooding can bring with it very real dangers,” Andy says. “We need to make the public aware as far ahead in time as possible, so they can plan for the event and maybe even be evacuated if needed.”

His hydrographic surveyor background means Andy knows not only what it feels like to face severe storms at sea (with sea-sickness) but also how marine industries rely on MetOcean data. Once started, their high-value and large-scale operations often can’t be stopped. So they need to know the exact two- to three-day ‘weather window’ in which they can operate efficiently, economically and safely. That requires robust forecast models underpinned by accurate, authoritative science.

A sea change

Recently, Andy and his team have refined how the models forecast conditions close to the UK coastline – with its challenging jagged shores and complex underwater bathymetry. A major change to the grid system the model uses - which Andy describes as “basically recreating the world from LEGO blocks” – is making a massive difference.

“By improving how the model describes the coastline and shallow water, we’ve increased the range of locations we can forecast clearly and confidently,” he explains. In turn, that will aid UK coastal flood forecasting agencies and support the RNLI to predict surf heights and rip currents with their new beach forecast service.

Andy’s team has shared this new grid scheme with the wider marine modelling community, via the wave model WAVEWATCH III. Global scientists, including Andy, feed into this ‘community model’ – allowing it to continually develop.

The rest is history

Despite operating at the cutting-edge of wave science, Andy often draws on the pioneering discoveries of the most influential oceanographer of ‘40s America, Walter Munk.

“He saw that South Atlantic storms could push wave energy right up to African beaches. But he also found you could calculate the timing of that swell using analytical solutions.”

First used to precisely predict conditions for WWII beach landings, Munk’s historical methods still form many of the underlying principles upon which contemporary wave models are based. And Andy is mindful that his modern-day work remains rooted in the heritage of the Met Office: “Keeping industries operating and keeping people safe, despite what the sea throws at them, has always underpinned everything we do.”