| Interview with a Tropical Prediction Scientist
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Interviewer: Sarah Bucknall (SB) National Space Centre
Interviewee: Julian Heming (JH) MET Office
SB: Hi, my name is Sarah Bucknall, I’m from the National Space Centre. I’m here with Julian Heming, a Tropical Prediction Scientist from the MET Office. So Julian, please tell us about your job, and a little bit about what you do.
JH: Well, Tropical Prediction Scientist as the name implies means I’m looking at the tropical weather. The vast part of that relates to tropical cyclones so really what I’m doing is monitoring tropical cyclones, the ones that are actually happening at the moment, looking at the ways we’re actually forecasting at the MET Office, trying to improve the ways that we do that, which involves using our computer models. And I’m also doing a lot of liaison with various agencies around the world to make sure that they’re getting the information that they need, and we’re getting the information from them.
SB: How did you become an expert on the weather? Was it something you’ve always wanted to do?
JH: Having an interest in the weather is something I have always had from a very early age, I was interested right from when I was at school – running our own little weather station. I always wanted to get involved in the weather in some way so it was natural to progress towards working for the MET Office. As far as the tropical cyclone science specifically is concerned, in some ways I fell into that by accident once I got into the MET Office and started working in different areas.
SB: So what particular qualifications do you need for your line of work? Do you have to be good at science or geography?
JH: To be involved in meteorology, particularly if you go into the real scientific side of it, the key subjects to follow are maths and physics. To a certain extent geography may help but on the scientific side there’s a lot of maths and physics involved so they’re really the subjects that you really need to follow.
SB: And how would that extend to degree level? Would it have to be a maths or physics degree or could you adapt to earth sciences?
JH: I think it could be adaptable although maths, physics or meteorology, there are some universities that actually do meteorology degrees such as Reading. Or areas of atmospheric science or computing areas as well, they’re all areas that could be followed up to degree level.
SB: So why is the MET Office involved in forecasting tropical cyclones when we don’t experience them in the UK?
JH: Well there are a couple of reasons why the MET Office is interested in tropical cyclones. Firstly, the MET Office is a global forecasting centre; we’re interested in producing forecasts for all parts of the world, which includes the tropics. So naturally that will include forecasting tropical cyclones. And we’re interested in giving forecasts to the agencies in the regions affected by tropical cyclones who want to see our forecasts. But in addition to that, in the Atlantic region, sometimes the tropical cyclones, which form there, do actually turn towards into our direction and although we don’t actually directly experience the impact of tropical cyclones sometimes we can get the tail end of them maybe during the autumn normally during the year. So it’s important for us to be able to forecast them in the tropics so that we can get a better forecast if they do head up towards our kind of latitudes.
SB: Are there many hurricane experts in the UK?
JH: Well in the MET Office itself, I’m the only one working specifically on this although there are other people in the MET Office doing work, which will either directly or indirectly relate to tropical cyclones. Beyond that, there are people who work in universities who may do work that touches on tropical cyclones although that’s likely to be more on the theoretical side of things. In terms of practical work and forecasting then the majority of the work relating specifically to tropical cyclones would be in overseas agencies.
SB: So how do you contribute toward helping people in areas that are directly affected?
JH: Well the key area where the MET Office can help is providing forecasts from our computer model. In the areas that are directly affected by tropical cyclones the responsibility for forecasts in those regions are actually given to forecast centres which are based in the tropics. So in that sense, we would not necessarily interact directly with the people who are experiencing tropical cyclones but we do provide information to the tropical cyclone warning centres, which helps them in their forecasts and in the decisions they make, and in the contact they have with the people that are directly affected.
SB: So tell me about your typical workday, what kind of things do you do?
JH: Well in a typical day it would depend whether there was actually any tropical cyclones actually active at the time. To start with, if there were, I would have a look and see that all our systems were working properly in terms of the way that we represent the tropical cyclone in our forecast model, in the quality of the forecast. I’d make sure that the products are all being disseminated properly. On the whole this should all happen automatically but it just requires a little bit of monitoring. Beyond that I would tend to work more on longer-term projects, which would involve looking at the quality of our forecasts for tropical cyclones, evaluating how changes to our forecast model would impact tropical cyclones and liasing with other forecast agencies and research agencies on longer-term projects where we can collaborate together.
SB: So what would you say are the best parts of your job?
JH: I think the best part of our job is knowing that we have contributed to a good forecast for a particular tropical cyclone, say that we’ve produced information that’s been passed to one of the forecast agencies and we know that that has contributed to giving good warnings, giving people time to get out of the way or take precautions, and certainly that’s a satisfying part of the job.
SB: Are there any bad parts to your job?
JH: I think the worst part of the job is probably when if there is a tropical cyclone heading for an area that is maybe a less developed country and you know that in those cases however good the forecasts are, sometimes the infrastructure in those countries is such that the information won’t get to the people in time or they won’t have the means to get out of the way. And you can know several days in advance that a storm’s going to hit but it can be a bit disconcerting to know that people are still going to be in harm’s way because they simply don’t get the information in time.
SB: So although we don’t get many hurricanes in the UK, can monitoring hurricanes ever be dangerous?
JH: For me, probably not because I’m doing most of it from the safety of my desk here in Exeter. But there are certain people who are involved in monitoring tropical cyclones who may be putting themselves in harm’s way, all in a good cause. In the US agency in particular they actually fly reconnaissance aircraft in and through and around hurricanes when they’re approaching the Caribbean and the United States. That’s in order to get the most up to date and useful observations from the actual tropical storm to feed back to the forecasters and that’s a very important job. It can be a little bit risky, I know from having spoken to some of the people who fly these aircraft that they can get quite a bumpy ride when they’re trying to fly through a hurricane.
SB: So what would you have to do if you were monitoring a hurricane from the Caribbean?
JH: Well if you’re actually located in the Caribbean and you heard that there was a tropical cyclone coming I think the first thing to do would be to make you get access to up to the minute forecast information from a reliable source such as the regional forecasting centre for that area. And certainly keep up to date with the latest forecast because they can change from hour to hour almost but certainly from day to day so it’s important to do that. And then I think basically follow the procedures that are given by the local authorities whether that be to stay where you are and get to a safe place within the building you’re in if there’s a hurricane coming or to evacuate. I’d certainly make sure I was kept up to date with what I was told by the emergency services in the area.
SB: So what’s the worst hurricane you’ve ever seen and what was your involvement with it?
JH: I think the worst hurricane I’ve ever seen certainly in recent years is probably Hurricane Mitch and that was back in 1998. I think the worst thing about that was the fact that it slowed greatly as it approached land and it struck a fairly impoverished part of Central America and caused many thousands of fatalities and I think that was the worst one I’ve seen because there was very little that could be done even though we were producing forecasts, the National Hurricane Centre were and there was lots of information available. The forecasts could have been better for that particular storm but actually it may not have made a huge amount of difference because people couldn’t get out the way, there was huge amounts of rainfall, and there were problems with mudslides because of deforestation and as a result of that unfortunately many thousands of people died as a result of that hurricane.
SB: So we can see it’s really important to have good hurricane experts, what would you say is the type of person that would make a good hurricane expert?
JH: I think you have to have an enthusiasm and interest in the subject, not just in hurricanes but I think in meteorology in general because there can be many parts of meteorology which are very useful to bring into hurricane forecasting in particular. I think you also need to have a willingness to learn and good communication skills as well, I suppose, so that you can liase with other people in different parts of the world and get a grip with the subjects and take it from there really with scientific collaboration. Just to have an enthusiasm for the subject I think is the key thing.
SB: Well thank you Julian that was some really useful information and it was really interesting. Thank you very much.