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On the road for greater good

What do 17th-century mathematician Leonard Euler and 1980s television weatherman Ian McCaskill have in common? Both, at one point or another, have inspired Dr Anthony Veal, Senior Scientific Consultant at the Met Office. Today he’s fascinated by the effects of weather and climate on all parts of society – from those simply trying to get from A to B, to people with serious respiratory problems.

Seeing an energetic weather presenter jumping around in front of colourful maps first piqued Anthony Veal’s interest in the weather, aged seven. Going on to study Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, he spent a ‘sandwich year’ in the US where he also tried out broadcasting for himself. “It was partly because I had an English accent,” Anthony confesses. “But I knew about the weather, so I read the forecast on student radio.”

By the time he began an MSc in Applied Meteorology and Climatology at the University of Birmingham, Anthony knew he wanted to explore how the weather impacts everyday life. So, after adding a PhD in air quality, he joined the Met Office in 2001.

Making a difference

When working with the Health team at the Met Office, Anthony drew on his doctorate in air quality to help create a weather model for COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), a severe respiratory condition. He and the team spotted links between key weather patterns at certain times of the year and increased hospital admissions. “Our model enabled the NHS to inform vulnerable patients, ahead of a weather event, to up their medication and control their condition, keeping them well – and hopefully out of hospital,” he explains.

Now, he has an impressive title: expert in climatological statistical analysis and presentation methods. But, put simply, Anthony says his job is to turn complex weather and climate information into something a customer can use. For Anthony, variety is one of the great pleasures of his job.

“What I like most about the Met Office is how many opportunities I have to apply my scientific knowledge to tackle all sorts of issues.”

Putting weather on the map

Finding ways to communicate detailed weather data to the Met Office’s range of clients has seen Anthony draw on his academic studies and his extra-curricular University activities. “I’ve always been fascinated by maps, ever since I ran my University walking club,” he remembers. But instead of using them to ramble through the Lake District, Scotland and Snowdonia, he’s now consulting maps slightly differently.

Much of Anthony’s work involves GIS – geographical information systems that map and analyse spatial data. It became a crucial tool in a Network Rail project that examined the cause and effect of poor rail adhesion – when snow, rain and leaves blown on to tracks can lessen traction.

“Using GIS, we discovered that small amounts of moisture on the rails from dew, drizzle and fog make them very slippery, and demonstrated that this was just as important as leaves on the line.”

Then, when Heathrow Airport needed a new network of weather sensors, Anthony designed survey routes and the team was carefully escorted up and down runways and taxiways in a vehicle specially modified to measure air and ground surface temperature.

But Anthony stresses that it’s not just collecting the data that’s important – it’s how you deliver it.

“We use cutting-edge scientific methods and technologies like GIS, but we need to turn the very detailed, complex output into something that’s meaningful for our customer,” he explains. In fact, he describes his role today as bridging scientific investigation and customer liaison, for a range of surface transport organisations, such as Network Rail. 

On the road

Very recently, Anthony partnered with Kier (which manages part of Highways England’s network) on a major project to optimise gritting routes in the Midlands. “The Met Office is unique because we can find the most financially and climatologically efficient routes that ultimately keep traffic flowing in wintry weather,” says Anthony.

Kier presented the Met Office with a challenge: their gritters have a short, two-hour window in which to cover a widespread intricate network – without running out of salt. So Anthony carefully set up and calibrated a model that coped with the complexities of Birmingham’s spaghetti junction and proposed a new set of routes. These were fed into cab-mounted GPS to guide drivers around the most efficient route.

“Our aim was to get the most out of each vehicle – going as close as possible to the two-hour limit without running out of salt or missing a motorway slip road. It’s a really delicate balancing act. But getting it right means we’ve saved them 15% in fuel and 12% in fleet costs.”

The Met Office also recently completed a project covering Northern Ireland’s 7,000 km long gritting network. The client optimised their routes several years ago, but wanted to revisit them to see if further savings could be made down the line. “Doing that requires huge investment of time and money,” says Anthony. “So I suggested a short desktop study first.”

Running a pre-project prediction study was new. But it paid off. By analysing the client’s treatment data, Anthony predicted they could save three to five gritting routes – a small number but a significant sum of money. After 18 months careful analysis his colleague Emma Smith successfully achieved a four route saving.

Looking back. Driving forward.

Reflecting on his 15 years at the Met Office, Anthony’s favourite part of his role is still what drew him here: applying meteorology to benefit everyday life. That means pushing science forward to solve problems – and never knowing exactly what the next project is going to involve. And it still throws up plenty of surprises. “The most rewarding thing is always when a customer turns to me and says ‘that’s amazing – we really didn’t know the Met Office could do that’.”