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Looking to the future

As she reaches the end of her eight years as Chief Scientist, Julia Slingo reflects on how Met Office science has evolved and what the future holds.

I arrived at the Met Office in 2009 with a desire to see the science we do, increasingly with partners in universities and other research institutes, make a real difference to protection, prosperity and well-being.

One unique attribute of the Met Office is the combination of weather and climate science and services in the same organisation. I have always argued that there is no difference between what we need to know about tomorrow’s weather and what our weather will be like in 50 years’ time as our planet warms. It’s the same fundamental science and we can employ the same fundamental models to make predictions.

It has been immensely rewarding to see barriers between weather and climate science and services gradually dismantled. We now have a single, unified science programme with common threads running through it. We know that we must simulate global weather and climate to forecast at the local scale for the UK. We also know that the biggest impacts of climate change will be felt through changes in hazardous weather and climate extremes at the regional and local scale.

We were able to exploit these common threads in our response to the National Flood Resilience Review (NFRR) when we were asked to provide plausible worst-case scenarios for UK rainfall for the next 10 years. The UK’s weather is highly variable and recent extreme flooding events often have their origins on the other side of the world. So how bad could our weather and therefore rainfall and flooding be?

As well as developing our science to tackle issues at the global to local scale, we have also advanced capabilities in ensemble prediction so we can talk about the probabilities of specific weather and climate events. We usually employ these in forecasting, but we can equally apply the concept of ‘one flap of a seagull’s wings will forever change the future course of the weather’ to explore the myriad of paths that the world’s weather could take – beyond what we have been able to observe over the last few decades – and find instances of even more severe weather. In the NFRR we were able to show that even more extreme rainfall is possible and to use these scenarios to stress test the Environment Agency’s assessments of flood risk.

Using climate and weather simulation to find plausible examples of more extreme conditions than we’ve observed so far – what we might call ‘black swans’ – is an exciting development which could revolutionise how we approach future assessments of weather, climate and environmental risk. We are increasingly aware that exposure to extreme weather and climate events could potentially threaten securities on which we rely – food, water, energy, health to name a few – and to derail the sustainability of economic development and social welfare in the developing world. This places Met Office science at the heart of national and international agendas to manage future risks, and adapt to and mitigate future climate change.

None of this would be possible, though, without substantial investments in supercomputing. The investment in our latest facility is designed to unlock the potential in our science to deliver actionable advice and services that make a real difference around the world.

With these solid foundations I have every expectation that Met Office science will continue to thrive and I give my successor, Professor Stephen Belcher, my very best wishes for the future.