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Leading science to services

Professor Stephen Belcher, Met Office Chief Scientist, describes his passion for his new role and work addressing the challenges of big data and climate change.

Being Chief Scientist at the Met Office is a wonderful job because of the broad range of science done in the Met Office, as well as the world-leading scientists who produce it. We are unique as we not only produce fundamental science, but also use science to deliver highly successful weather and climate services to our customers. So, I was delighted to take on the role following the retirement of Dame Professor Julia Slingo at the end of last year.

As Chief Scientist, my responsibility is to nurture our scientific and technical excellence. For the Met Office to maintain its world-leading reputation, it is essential that our scientists are able to meet their full potential. I am proud that the Met Office is working towards achieving this, for instance, through supporting opportunities for women in science.

Another important part of my role is to champion Met Office science; my ambition is for the Met Office to be recognised as a leader in weather and climate science. This means that we need to work with experts in other fields, and deliver through partnership, building on the legacy of my predecessor.

Before the Met Office I worked mainly in academia at the universities of Cambridge, Reading, and Stanford in California. My research covered several areas spanning foundation, weather and climate sciences, and focused on turbulence in the atmosphere and oceans. While at Reading I ran the school of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, which includes the world-famous Department of Meteorology. After that I became the first Joint Met Office Chair at Reading under the Met Office Academic Partnership.

Five years ago I joined the Met Office as Director of the Met Office Hadley Centre. I am particularly proud of the work that we did on climate dynamics which informed the improvements to the seasonal forecast system and the new UK Climate Projections (UKCP18) which come out next year. I also refocused the climate science programme onto both science and services, and substantially increased our international work, for example through the Climate Science for Service Partnership China (CSSP China).

Capitalising on the new supercomputer

Our new supercomputer was delivered ahead of schedule which has meant that many of the latest science upgrades are now going operational and are helping to improve our forecasts.

A new supercomputer also means huge volumes of data. Now, data is one thing, but information is another, so we are looking at intelligent ways of creating useful information and extracting value from that data. That is where the science to service aspect comes in. Improvements to our weather and climate models will enable development of better services, particularly relevant in our support of the Government’s emerging Industrial Strategy and in supporting our humanitarian work.

Communicating the value of our science

It is important that we communicate the value of the science that we produce, and the new Met Office science twitter feed is a great way for people to follow our research across foundation, weather, climate and applied science. More generally, the Met Office progressively shares a mixture of content in innovative ways using different channels.

Another good example of communicating science is our interactive global animations. These involved scientists, programmers, designers and the Met Office Informatics Lab working together to create a new way of visualising one of our global climate datasets.

Translating meteorology into risks

Increasingly, we are assessing and predicting environmental risks, translating meteorology into actual impacts, like flooding, drought or damaging wind storms. This concept draws together a thread that runs right through foundation, weather, climate and applied science. To assess present-day risk we need to understand the extent to which it is due to natural fluctuations or climate change. This enables us to predict changing risk over timescales from a few days ahead, to seasonal, decadal or even longer.

Who could have imagined the expansion in the range of services we now provide? A great example of this is space weather. Ten years ago it was hard to anticipate that we would ever produce these forecasts operationally, yet here we are having done so for over a year. I can’t wait to help create the next evolution in our services, all underpinned by a strong fundamental science programme!