Training the trade
For 75 years the Met Office College has turned new recruits into top meteorologists. Today, training also helps industries around the world get to grips with forecasts - and deal with whatever's on the horizon.
Contemporary forecasting is incredibly sophisticated. Using state-of-the-art technologies, numerical models and satellites, the Met Office can accurately forecast what will happen today, tomorrow and days ahead - which is extremely valuable for businesses affected by the weather. But without the right training, the detailed reports they receive can be difficult to interpret. Which is where the Met Office College comes into its own.
Right move, right time
A prime example is the road industry. "They get quite a complex five-day report from us, from general information right down to what the road surface temperature will be," explains Mike Mason, Met Office Customer Training Manager. "They use that information to decide what they're going to do in the next 24 hours - and the coming week."
If snow or ice is forecast, for example, a highways team has to make a series of judgement calls: when to mobilise manpower, whether snow ploughs are needed, how much drift there will be and how many grams of salt will be needed per square metre of road. Mike puts things in perspective:
"That kind of operation could cost an average-sized council between £10,000 and £30,000 in a single night. If they can interpret the forecasts correctly and go out to treat the roads, that's money well spent. But getting things wrong can have huge implications on budgets, efficiencies and, ultimately, safety."
Travelling the globe
The College doesn't just benefit industry across the UK. Met Office trainers travel the globe, passing on best practice to international weather services.
In Manila recently, Mike and his team delivered a 'train the trainer' workshop for the national weather service, Philippines Atmospheric Geophysical Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA). As part of this, they demonstrated the Met Office's multi-hazard concept, which provides the general public natural hazard warnings.
From that one session there was a domino effect and those few delegates went on to coach their stakeholders and emergency responders. This has helped PAGASA further develop its warning service for the Philippines.
But there's no one-size-fits-all approach, especially when training overseas. Before going to Rwanda, for example, College coaches thought carefully about the challenges different industries within that country face - such as huge thunderstorms, landslides and flash flooding. And of course, no matter how careful the preparations, flexibility is often needed. "We always plan what we're going to cover, but sometimes you have to change tack when you get there and see what they're doing on the ground," says Mike.
75 years of training
When the Met Office College was founded in 1939, learning followed a 'chalk and talk' approach. But that, along with the nature of forecasting, has changed. Now, Mike says, "Go into the College and you'll see people using visualisation tools, models, satellites and radar observations". And the College's blended learning - where individuals fit online course modules around their day-to-day jobs - is proving particularly fruitful.
For Mike, seeing companies return year after year to enhance their forecasting skills is the real success story. "People coming back full of enthusiasm, telling us how useful training was and how it impacted on their decision making, is really gratifying."
Of course, coaching in-house forecasters has its own benefits for Mike and his colleagues. They often find themselves at the mercy of the weather and relying on the forecasts of the very people they trained to become meteorologists.
"Last year I was due to run a course the other side of the Pennines," Mike remembers. "The Met Office predicted snow the next morning, so I quickly got up and travelled overnight. That day, forecasting actually helped me deliver forecasting training - so it all comes full circle."
The power of training
For energy suppliers, being able to accurately interpret weather forecasts is vital. As James Middleton, HV Operations Engineer for E.ON explains: "Weather and sea state are central to how offshore wind farms operate, for example. We make decisions and evolve maintenance plans on a daily basis, based on forecasts."
E.ON knew that having a solid grounding in forecasting could help maximise the efficiency of wind farms. That led them to the Met Office College's Introduction to Meteorology for Renewable Energy Professionals course.
The course began with an in-depth overview of the factors that drive UK weather, moving on to focus on how those factors can affect the particular weather and sea conditions E.ON see at Humber Gateway - their wind farm. Delegates then examined the potential effects on that site's operation.
"One exercise involved reviewing the forecast for a day during the course. As we did that, a trough (an area of low atmospheric pressure) appeared right over our operations and maintenance base in Grimsby, in the form of a thunderstorm with hail," James remembers. "Before the course I had little knowledge of a trough, but as that particular storm passed I came to understand the forecast, the mechanism driving that weather feature and the impact it would have on our wind farm operations. That really cemented things for me."
E.ON employees came away with a detailed understanding of the weather. That understanding is continuing to have a positive impact, influencing the decisions E.ON makes daily about wind farm operation.