On the world's edge
Every year, the Met Office supports the British Antarctic Survey's field work by forecasting on location in one of the world's most challenging environments.
The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) is one of the world's leading environmental research centres, responsible for the UK's national scientific activities in Antarctica. Every summer, it makes the most of the season to advance its research programme through field operations across the Western Antarctic. The programme relies on accurate forecasting - and here is where the Met Office plays a critical role.
A successful season of field operations relies heavily on the ability of BAS to transport scientists, engineers, mountaineers, large equipment and fuel across Western Antarctica - predominantly by plane. In contrast to the airports, runways and computerised landing equipment of the civilised world, Western Antarctica has only a few basic landing strips, mostly made out of snow and ice, making landing and takeoff far more weather dependent than usual.
None of these flights can safely operate without the support of a skilled forecaster. So, each year, an experienced Met Office forecaster arrives on the first flight of the season - forecasting their own inbound flight - and leaves on the last.
A forecasting challenge
The challenges of forecasting in the Antarctic are great. It is a vast area, extending from the South Pole to South America - and the weather is extreme. Antarctica is the highest, driest, coldest and windiest continent on planet and there are only a couple of fairly coarse resolution weather models for the area.
Satellite imagery is also sparse as the forecaster has to rely on polar orbiters for satellite pictures; these do a 'swipe' of the planet just twice in the morning, and again in the afternoon. Field parties also call in each day with their own observations, but the forecaster has to keep in mind the challenge of making accurate observations on flat white ice, where distances and topography are hard to gauge.
The forecaster also has to be highly skilled at reading satellite pictures: "The clouds are white, the ground is white, so the pictures are white," explains Laura Paterson, Deputy Chief Meteorologist at the Met Office. "You have to infer between lots of different channels of satellite imagery to pick up the difference between ice and water droplets."
It takes tremendous skill, which is why the forecaster must have previously gained experience in the Falklands, which experiences similarly severe and fast changing weather. Also, the first forecaster to begin the season will have spent time at Rothera in the past. They are then able to train up their replacement halfway through the season, before returning home.
Over the season, the forecaster works closely with BAS' Field Operations Manager, meteorologists and Chief Pilot, forecasting primarily for the BAS flights, but also for the various field parties camping around the Western Antarctic, and occasionally for ships as well. As they get an understanding of the research programme and what's required, they are able to help the BAS Field Operations Manager and Chief Pilot prioritise tasks according to the weather windows available. This helps BAS plan and work more efficiently through the season. "We just would not be able to keep aircraft flying and stay on track with the field programme if we didn't have the forecaster on the station. It's invaluable." explains Simon Garrod, Deputy Operations Manager at BAS.
A symbiotic partnership
The benefits to the Met Office are equally significant. The Dash 7 aircraft reports wind and temperature data at specified waypoints and this valuable data goes into the Met Office supercomputer, along with official observations carried out by highly skilled BAS meteorologists. The Met Office also collates information during the season to use for the future. For years, BAS and the Met Office have helped one another push the boundaries of research. It's a partnership that's set to continue for years to come.
In this video, Laura Paterson, Deputy Chief Meteorologist, describes how the Met Office and BAS work together.