On relocating to Oklahoma for 3.5 months

Email: s.h.lee@pgr.reading.ac.uk

From May 4th through August 10th 2019, I relocated to Norman, Oklahoma, where I worked in the School of Meteorology in the National Weather Center (NWC) at the University of Oklahoma (OU). I’m co-supervised by Jason Furtado at OU, and part of my SCENARIO-funded project plan involves visiting OU each summer to work with Dr. Furtado’s research group, while using my time in the U.S. to visit relavant academics and conferences. Prior to my PhD, I studied Reading’s MMet Meteorology and Climate with a Year in Oklahoma degree, and spent 9 months at OU as part of that – so it’s a very familiar place! The two departments have a long-standing link, but this is the first time there has been PhD-supervision collaboration.

The National Weather Center in Norman, Oklahoma – home to the School of Meteorology.

The National Weather Center (NWC) [first conceived publicly in a 1999 speech by President Bill Clinton in the aftermath of the Bridge Creek-Moore tornado] opened in 2006 and is a vastly bigger building than Reading Meteorology! Alongside the School of Meteorology (SoM), it houses the Oklahoma Mesonet, the NOAA Storm Prediction Center (SPC) (who are responsible for operational severe weather and fire forecasting in the U.S.) and the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL). SPC and NSSL will be familiar to any of you who have seen the 1996 film Twister. You could think of it as somewhat like a smaller version of the Reading Meteorology department being housed in the Met Office HQ in Exeter.

Inside the NWC.

The research done at SoM is mostly focussed on mesoscale dynamics, including tornadogenesis, thanks to its location right at the heart of ‘tornado alley’. It’s by no means a typical haunt of someone who researches stratosphere dynamics like I do, but SoM has broadened its focus in recent years with the inception of the Applied Climate Dynamics research group of which I’m a part. Aside from the numerous benefits of being able to speak face-to-face with a supervisor who is otherwise stuck on a TV screen on Skype, I also learnt new skills and new ways of thinking – purely from being at a different institution in a different country. I also used this time to work on the impact of the stratosphere on North America (a paper from this work is currently in review).

I also visited the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) in Boulder, Colorado to present some of my work, and collaborate on some papers with scientists there. Boulder is an amazing place, and I highly recommend going and hiking up into the mountains if you can (see also this 2018 blog post from Jon Beverley on his visit to Boulder).

As for leisure… I chose to take 2 weeks holiday in late May to, let’s say, do “outdoor atmospheric exploration“. This happened to coincide with the peak of one of the most active tornado seasons in recent years, and I just so happened to see plenty of them. I’m still working on whether or not the stratosphere played a role in the weather patterns responsible for the outbreak!

An EF2-rated wedge tornado on 23 May near Canadian, Texas.

Wisdom from experience: advice for new PhD students

The new academic year is now underway, and a new bunch of eager first year PhD students are dipping their toes into a three-to-four year journey to their doctorate. So, we’ve collated some advice from the more experienced among us! The idea behind the following tidbits of advice is that they are things we would tell our younger selves if we could go back to day 1…

Work

“Make sure you and your supervisor set out expectations and at least a vague timeline at the start, that way you will know you’re on track.”

“Write code as if you’re giving it to someone else – one day you might have to.”

Even if you don’t give your code to another use, in a year’s time you’ll have forgotten what it does! Related to this, it’s useful to keep good “readme” documents to note where all your code is, how to run things, etcetera. Also, if you think you’re going to present a plot at some point – in a talk, paper, or even your thesis, make a final version at the time (using appropriately accessible colour maps and big enough labels), plus note down where you’ve stored the code you used to make it.

“Learn and use git/github (or at least get familiar with the 3 basic commands of: git add, commit, push) ASAP! This means that if you take a wrong turn in your code (you will), you can painlessly ‘revert’ to a stage before you made a mess.”

“Read papers with your literature review in mind. If you can’t see where the paper will fit in your literature review, either reconsider your literature review… or find a more relevant paper.”

“Write down everything you learn, or facts you are told – you never know when you’ll need a piece of information again.”

But also be prepared to have not really followed any of this advice properly until you regurgitate it to new students in your fourth year and wonder why you haven’t been doing any of it up until now.

“Try to keep up a good routine – it’s much easier to get out of bed when you’re having a slow work week if that’s what your body is used to.”

“You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll learn and master without even realising.”

“Don’t compare yourself to others.”

Every PhD project is unique, as is every student. During a PhD, you’re looking into the unknown. Maybe you’ll get lucky (with some hard work) and have some really interesting results, or it might be a bit of a battle. Some projects are more suited to regular publications, others less so – this doesn’t necessarily reflect your individual abilities. In addition, everyone has different background knowledge and motivation for doing a PhD.

“Not every day has to be maximum productivity, that’s okay!”

“Some days are great, others are rubbish. Like life, really.”

Life

“Make friends with other PhD students. It’s nice to have someone who might make you cake when you feel sad, or happy.”

This is so true. A PhD is quite a unique experience and lots of people don’t really get it, thinking it’s just like another undergrad. Sometimes it’s really useful to have someone who understands the stress of some code just not working, or the dread of a blank page where your monitoring committee report should be. It’s also helpful to get to know people in the years above, or even post-docs, since they’ve probably already gone through what you’re experiencing.

“Make friends and join clubs and societies with people that aren’t doing PhDs.”

Sometimes it’s important to get out of the PhD “bubble” and put things in perspective. Keeping in touch with friends that have “real” jobs (for want of a better word) can be a nice reminder of some of the benefits of PhD life – such as flexible hours (you don’t have to be in before 9 every day) or not having to wear formal business attire.

Wellbeing

“Try to keep your weekends free – it’s great for your sanity!”

“Take holiday! You are expected to.”

“Don’t feel guilty for not cheering up when people tell you everything’s okay. It almost invariably is, but sometimes it all gets a bit much and you’ll feel bad for a while, that’s totally normal!”

Yes, it’s totally okay to have a couple of bad days. Remember, this can often be true of people with ‘real’ jobs, it isn’t just unique to the PhD experience! However, if you’re feeling bad for a long period of time, it’s important to acknowledge that this isn’t okay and you don’t have to feel like that. It might be helpful to let your supervisor know that you’re having a bit of a hard time, for whatever reason, and work might be slow for a while. There are also lots of support systems available. For students at Reading, you can find out more about the Counselling and Wellbeing Service here (http://www.reading.ac.uk/cou/counselling-services-landing.aspx). A PhD is hard work, but it should be a fundamentally enjoyable experience!

Finally:

“No poking your supervisor with a stick. They don’t appreciate it.”

(…no, we don’t get it either)


Co-written by Simon Lee and Sally Woodhouse, with anonymous pieces of advice collected from various PhD students in the Department of Meteorology.

SWIFT and YESS International Summer School, Kumasi, Ghana

Email: a.j.doyle@pgr.reading.ac.uk

Last month, from the 21st July until the 3rd August 2019, I was in Ghana attending the African SWIFT and YESS International Summer School. What a catchy name you are probably thinking. SWIFT, or Science for Weather Information and Forecasting Techniques, is a programme of research and capability building, led by the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS), and funded by the UK Research and Innovation Global Challenges Research Fund. The project aims to improve African weather forecasting, especially on seasonal timescales, as well as build capability in related research. It’s worth a quick Google search at some point, and there are several people involved in the project at the University of Reading. YESS, the Young Earth System Scientists community, is an international, multidisciplinary network of early career researchers. Catchy!

Anyway, all this contributed toward a really remarkable summer school in tropical West Africa, with people from many different institutions and nations across Europe and Africa attending the summer school and science meeting alongside. It was also another chance to get consistently barraged with Brexit questions by a baffled international audience.

The days were long but engaging, with lectures, practical sessions and workshops on a huge variety of topics in tropical meteorology – from Rossby waves, to the monsoon, to remote sensing applications. It was quickly evident how tricky tropical African weather is to forecast. It is largely driven by convection, which is very difficult to forecast accurately on a small spatio-temporal scale, unlike nice, large mid-latitude weather systems. Furthermore, several different atmospheric features are at play. This is where we were introduced to the wonderful West African synoptic analysis/forecast charts (see below for an example of mine). We also had a chance to present our posters, with many of those from the science meeting – experts in their fields – coming round to look, and this was a fantastic networking opportunity. It was really beneficial being around other early career scientists in the same specific field as me, from different places around the world. It cannot be said enough how important this is for PhD students, who for the most part live quite an isolated existence where when you switch from your native English language to your ‘PhD language’, only your supervisors and a few select others can understand you!

For me, it is in the people attending where the strength of the summer school really lies. The people in Kumasi, Ghana were amazing people. They not only keep you going through 2 weeks of long days, 3 dozen lectures, and 400 meals of rice, but they reminded me what it meant to be a scientist. I found, to my discredit, that most of the students there were far more studious than I was, not because they were any less clever or anything like that, but because they simply loved knowledge, and loved applying it (meteorology is great for quickly being able to see how what we know manifests itself in the real world). On reflection, I think they are more aware of the fact millions of people (moreso in Africa than any other continent) simply do not have access to such knowledge, but in Kumasi we were learning about African meteorology from world experts. They did not take it for granted, in fact, it was clearly what drove them. Science wasn’t just an occupation for them, it had tangible importance, which came across in the way they spoke about their science, but also their future ambitions, hopes and plans.

Further to this, meeting people across universities, countries, and continents also brings a different perspective on your work and where it fits into the wider collection of research in the area. One sad point was learning how hard it was for African students to get PhDs. Not only do they typically have to travel much further (i.e. typically to Europe or the US) in order to get one, but they also rely on getting funding, which is often the final obstacle even after they have found the right PhD project. It’s a real shame.

So after 2 long weeks (and a very hot football game on a gravelly pitch with no shoes) I came back physically exhausted, but academically I was refreshed with lots of new ideas floating round, but even more importantly newfound inspiration. In the now famous words of the provost of the college during the closing ceremony, “let your research be SWIFT and YESS.”

Fluid Dynamics of Sustainability and the Environment Summer School

Email: m.prosser@pgr.reading.ac.uk

From the 1st – 12th of July 2019, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the Fluid Dynamics of Sustainability and the Environment (FDSE) summer school held at Ecole Polytechnique on the southern outskirts of Paris. Although it was held at Ecole Polytechnique this year, it alternates with the University of Cambridge, where it will be held in 2020.

As hinted at in the title, the summer school explores the fluid dynamical aspects of planet Earth, including, but not limited to: the atmosphere, the ocean, the cryosphere and the solid Earth, and was of particular relevance to me because I study clear-air turbulence (a fluid dynamical phenomenon) and its impact on aviation. To get a better sense of the summer school, have a watch of this 3-minute promotion video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGoF0L8gqXw

It was a busy, action-packed 2 weeks. The days consisted of: 4 hours of lectures held each morning (coffee was provided), followed by either lab or numerical practical sessions in the afternoons and something social (wine was provided) such as a poster session, barbecue, and an environmentally-themed film night followed by a discussion of the film’s (The Day After Tomorrow) fluid dynamical accuracy (or not, as the case may be!). During the mid-programme weekend, we were put up in a hostel in central Paris, treated to an evening on a moored boat on the Seine (champagne was provided) and then left to our own devices to explore Paris.

The boat on the Seine even had its own dance floor.

The other students were great, with all sorts of backgrounds/PhD projects that linked in one way or another to the FDSE theme. Many interesting and diverse conversations were had, as well as a great deal of fun and laughter! No doubt many of the people who met here both this year and others will collaborate scientifically in the future.

Not having come from a maths/physics background, I found a lot of the mathematical content quite challenging, but I made copious notes and my interest in and appreciation for the subject greatly increased. As I progress throughout my PhD (I am currently still in my first year), I feel many of the concepts that I encountered here are likely to resurface in a slow-burn fashion and I can see myself returning to the lecture material as and when I meet related concepts.

In particular, gaining an understanding of what an instability is and studying the different types was eye-opening, and seeing Kelvin-Helmholtz instabilities — which cause the shear that generates the clear-air turbulence I study in my PhD — form in a tube of dyed fluid was a particularly memorable moment for me.

Kelvin-Helmholtz billows forming in a tube.

Apart from being very interesting theoretically, fluid dynamics also has many practical applications. For example, insufficient understanding and modelling of the behaviour of plumes at the Fukushima nuclear reactor led to hydrogen gas concentrations exceeding 8%, resulting in dangerous explosions. Many other such examples could be given.

The summer school was well-organised and many of the lecturers and guest speakers were both highly entertaining and informative, and really bought the subject to life with their enthusiasm for it. I highly recommend it to anyone with a related PhD!

The 2019 cohort in front of Ecole Polytechnique.

The Colour of Climate

Email: Jake.J.Gristey@noaa.gov
Web: https://cires.colorado.edu/researcher/jake-j-gristey

Gristey, J.J., J.C. Chiu, R.J. Gurney, K.P. Shine, S. Havemann, J. Thelen, and P.G. Hill, 2019: Shortwave Spectral Radiative Signatures and Their Physical Controls. J. Climate, 32, 4805–4828, https://doi.org/10.1175/JCLI-D-18-0815.1

Sunlight reaching the Earth is comprised of many different colours, or wavelengths. Some of these wavelengths cannot be detected by the human eye, such as the ultraviolet (UV) wavelengths which famously cause sunburn. Fortunately for us, the most intense sunlight is found at harmless visible wavelengths and reaches the surface with relative ease, allowing us to see during the daytime. Sometimes nature aligns to dramatically separate these wavelengths, producing beautiful optical phenomena such as rainbows. More often, however, the properties of the atmosphere and surface lead to intricate differences in the wavelengths of sunlight that get reflected back to space (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Schematic showing how the spectral structure of reflected sunlight at the top of the atmosphere can emerge via interactions with various atmospheric/surface properties*.

Satellites have observed specific wavelengths of reflected sunlight to infer the properties and evolution of our climate system for decades. Satellites have also independently measured the total amount of reflected sunlight across all wavelengths to track energy flows into and out of the Earth system. It has been less common to make spectrally resolved measurements at many contiguous wavelengths throughout the solar spectrum. In theory, these measurements would simultaneously provide the total energy flow – by integrating over the wavelengths – and the “spectral signature” associated with all atmospheric and surface properties that determined this energy flow. Our recent study puts this theory to the test.

Almost 100,000 spectra of reflected sunlight were computed at the top-of-atmosphere under a diverse variety of conditions. Applying a clustering technique to the computed spectra (which identifies “clusters” in a dataset with similar characteristics) revealed distinct spectral signatures. When we examined the atmospheric and surface properties that were used to compute the spectra belonging to each spectral signature, a remarkable separation of physical properties was found (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. (top row) Three of the extracted “spectral signatures” of reflected sunlight. (bottom row) Their relationship to the underlying atmospheric/surface properties. Seven others are shown in the published article.

Surprisingly, the separation of physical properties by distinct spectral signatures, as shown in Fig. 2, was found to be robust up to the largest spatial scales tested of 240 km. This is similar to the footprint size of one of the only previous satellite instruments to measure contiguous spectrally resolved reflected sunlight, the SCIAMACHY**, providing an exciting opportunity to investigate spectral signature variability in real observations. We found that the frequency of spectral signatures in real SCIAMACHY observations followed the expected behaviour during the West African monsoon very closely (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. (left) The annual cycle of precipitation [mm/day] associated with the West African monsoon, and (right) frequency of the three “spectral signatures” shown in Fig. 2 from real satellite observations during 2010 over West Africa.

Overall, the separation of physical properties by distinct spectral signatures demonstrates great promise for monitoring evolution of the Earth system directly from spectral reflected sunlight in the future.

Funding acknowledgement: This work was supported by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) SCience of the Environment: Natural and Anthropogenic pRocesses, Impacts and Opportunities (SCENARIO) Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP), Grant NE/L002566/ 1, and from the European Union 7th Framework Programme under Grant Agreement 603502 [EU project Dynamics–Aerosol–Chemistry–Cloud Interactions in West Africa (DACCIWA)]

*Note several key simplifications in Fig. 1 for the purposes of visual effect: atmospheric properties are separated, but often occur simultaneously and throughout the atmosphere; the depicted path of sunlight is one option, but sunlight emerging at the top of the atmosphere will come from many different paths; sunlight reflected by the surface will need to travel back through the same gases (and likely other properties) on its way back to the top of the atmosphere, which is not shown. The spectra in Fig. 1 are generated with SBDART using a set of arbitrary but realistic atmospheric and surface properties.

** SCIAMACHY = Scanning Imaging Absorption Spectrometer for Atmospheric Chartography.

Jake completed his PhD at Reading in 2018 and now works at the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) in Boulder, Colorado.

The 27th General Assembly of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG) in Montréal, Canada

Earlier this month (9th – 17th July, 2019), Elena Saggioro and I from the Mathematics of Planet Earth Centre of Doctoral Training (MPE CDT) were in Montréal for the General Assembly of the IUGG, a quadrennial gathering of nearly 4000 geoscientists from all over the world sharing their latest scientific advances.

At the conference centre.

The IUGG, which celebrates its centenary this year, is an international organisation ‘dedicated to advancing, promoting, and communicating knowledge of the Earth system, its space environment, and the dynamical processes causing change’ (from the Mission Statement on its website).  The IUGG consists of eight constituent associations, among which the International Association of Meteorology and Atmospheric Sciences (IAMAS) and the International Association for the Physical Sciences of the Oceans (IAPSO) are of the most relevance to meteorology students here in Reading.  Other fields under the IUGG umbrella include hydrology, cryospheric sciences, seismology, volcanology, geodesy and geomagnetism.

In the General Assembly I presented a poster on my own PhD research, revisiting and proposing a new argument for the finite-time barrier of weather predictability. The poster turned out to be popular, with a good number of scientists visiting and discussing in depth. It is great to know these people, especially those who work in the relatively small field of predictability. Earlier that day, Elena gave an interesting talk on studying southern-hemisphere stratosphere-troposphere coupling using casual network. A member in the audience came to her after the talk for a follow-up chat which lasted for hours! In addition, our supervisor Ted Shepherd gave a solicited talk advocating his storylines approach to the construction of regional climate-change information.

Elena Saggioro’s oral presentation.
With my poster.

For the variety of subjects covered, the General Assembly was also an excellent opportunity for us to interact with geoscientists of other fields and to get an idea of their research. I did this primarily through the poster sessions, as there’s already so much going on in the oral-presentation sessions of the IAMAS symposia (just a matter of fact: the IAMAS, at 21%, was by far the association with the most attendees), and because it’s easier for a beginner to learn through interacting with a poster presenter than listening to short talks that usually presume some background knowledge in the field. The outcome of visiting posters in such an international conference could be somewhat unexpected. This time, I gave a little more focus on posters from remote parts of the world and learnt how research is being done in these places. To give an example, I saw how hydrologists in French Polynesia use analogue techniques to forecast rainfall and flood on the island of Tahiti which has a complex geography of drainage basins (poster by Lydie Sichoix, University of French Polynesia). This is a very challenging problem, and I think their commitment to protecting the public’s safety during floods is clear, yet there’s only so much they can do as they don’t have the money to buy even a single RADAR instrument for nowcasting. The situation in underprivileged places like this definitely deserves more attention.

Aside from the scientific programme, Elena and I spent some time as a tourist in Montréal. We are delighted to learn how committed Montréal is to sustainability and climate-change adaptation. The Biosphère Museum of the Environment nicely outlines the resilient city’s master plan 50 years ahead: new space reserved for nature in the city centre, green alleyways throughout the city, and harvesting storm and rain water are just a few examples in their long-term plan.

The Biosphère Museum.

Montréal is also rich in history, culture and diversity. Churches and museums are everywhere. There were also a multi-cultural festival and a series of fireworks depicting different national themes during our stay, and we went to some of them. Situated along St Lawrence’s River, the city is also home to a range of water sports, including white-water rafting which was a fun experience. Before coming home, Elena and I went up to Mount Royal for an exhilarating view of Montréal, a city that we much enjoyed!

A panoramic view from the Mount Royal Lookout.

The 2nd ICTP Summer School in Hierarchical Modelling of Climate Dynamics

Between the 1st and 12th July 2019, I attended the 2nd International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) Summer School in Hierarchical Modelling of Climate Dynamics at the ICTP guesthouse in Trieste, Italy. The focus of this summer school was on convective organisation and climate sensitivity, which is incredibly relevant to my PhD topic: Interactions between Radiation and Convective Organisation. So, I felt I had to attend this summer school (and not just because my lead supervisor, Chris Holloway, was one of the lead directors).

This was an international conference with staff and students coming together from all corners of the globe. In total there were 111 people attending the school, made up of 84 participants, 20 speakers and 7 directors. Without knowing anyone else going to this school (except my supervisor), I was initially a little apprehensive as I didn’t know what to expect but as soon as I met some of the other students I was put at ease. It was amazing to meet other people working on very similar projects to me, especially since my supervisor was the only other person I previously knew working on this convective organisation topic. So, it was great to not only make new friends but also meet potential future colleagues.

Group photo of all those involved in the summer school.

As expected, the schedule was pretty intense, with most days working from 9am until 6pm except for lunch and a couple of coffee breaks. The mornings consisted of a couple of lectures given by some of the leading experts in the field including Kerry Emanuel, Bjorn Stevens and Sandrine Bony, then in the afternoons we would do some group project work. In our groups of 4 or 5, we analysed some numerical model data, to study how convection organises within our model. I was surprised to find that our group tasks were very similar to what I’ve been doing for my first year, so I was a bit worried that we’d manage to do what I’ve been working on this past year within a couple of weeks! But actually, it ended up giving me almost too many new ideas for my own research! In the second week, each group then had to give a quick presentation on their work.

Talk by Kerry Emanuel about the consequences of climate change on our weather.

Each day, after the lectures and the group work, we were free to do what we wanted for the rest of the evening. With the venue being right on the coast, and with temperatures consistently between 26 – 32C in the day, it was perfect to relax by the sea or go for a swim. Or, if we were bored with the relentless supply of pasta in the canteen then we’d often go into town in search of pizza and of course gelato!

At the start of the second week, there was a poster session in which a lot of the participants brought posters to showcase their projects. This was the first time I’d presented my research at an event like this, so it was great to show what I’ve been working on in front of so many people. It was exciting to see so many people genuinely interested in my work and I got lots of useful feedback and ideas.

Presenting my work at the poster session.

So overall, this summer school far surpassed my expectations and I would strongly recommend attending a summer school if you get the chance. I learned so much through the lectures, the group work, through chatting to the professors and students and through presenting my work. I now have far too many ideas to explore with my research, probably more than I can realistically achieve! Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the school was being able to meet so many people working in this field. Since this topic is very niche, I have been very lucky to meet a very large proportion of the people working in the topic so I’m sure some of our paths will cross in the future and we will be able to collaborate on future projects.