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.

Workshop on Predictability, dynamics and applications research using the TIGGE and S2S ensembles

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

From April 2nd-5th I attended the workshop on Predictability, dynamics and applications research using the TIGGE and S2S ensembles at ECMWF in Reading. TIGGE (The International Grand Global Ensemble, formerly THORPEX International Grand Global Ensemble) and S2S (Sub-seasonal-to-Seasonal) are datasets hosted at primarily at ECMWF as part of initiatives by the World Weather Research Programme (WWRP) and the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP). TIGGE has been running since 2006 and stores operational medium-range forecasts (up to 16 days) from 10 global weather centres, whilst S2S has been operational since 2015 and houses extended-range (up to 60 days) forecasts from 11 different global weather centres (e.g. ECMWF, NCEP, UKMO, Meteo-France, CMA…etc.). The benefit of these centralised datasets is their common format, which enables straightforward data requests and multi-model analysis with minimal data manipulation allowing scientists to focus on doing science!

Attendees of the workshop came from around the world (not just Europe) although there was a particularly sizeable cohort from Reading Meteorology and NCAS.

Figure 1: Workshop group photo featuring the infamous ECMWF ducks!

In my PhD so far, I have been making extensive use of the S2S database – looking at both operational and re-forecast datasets to assess stratospheric predictability and biases – and it was rewarding to attend the workshop and see what a diverse range of applications the datasets have across the world. From the oceans to the stratosphere, tropics to poles, predictability mathematics to farmers and energy markets, it was immediately very clear that TIGGE and S2S are wonderfully useful tools for both the research and applications communities. A particular aim of the workshop was to discuss “user-oriented variables” – derived variables from model output which represent the meteorological conditions to which a user is sensitive (such as wind speed at a specific height for wind power applications).

The workshop mainly consisted of 15-minute conference-style talks in the main lecture theatre and poster sessions, but the final two days also featured parallel working group sessions of about 15 members each. The topics discussed in the working groups can be found here. I was part of working group 4, and we discussed dynamical processes and ensemble diagnostics. We reflected on some of the points raised by speakers over the preceding days – particular attention was given to diagnostics needed to understand dynamical effects of model biases (such as their influence on Rossby wave propagation and weather-regime transition) alongside what other variables researchers needed to make full use of the potentials S2S and TIGGE offer (I don’t think I could say “more levels in the stratosphere!” loudly enough – TIGGE does not go above 50 hPa, which is not useful when studying stratospheric warming events defined at 10 hPa).

Data analysis tools are also becoming increasingly important in atmospheric science. Several useful and perhaps less well-known tools were presented at the workshop – Mio Matsueda’s TIGGE and S2S museum websites provide a wide variety of pre-prepared plots of variables like the NAO and MJO which are excellent for exploratory data analysis without needing many gigabytes of data downloads. Figure 2 shows an example of NAO forecasts from S2S data – the systematic negative NAO bias at longer lead-times was frequently discussed during the workshop, whilst the inability to capture the transition to a positive NAO regime beginning around February 10th is worth further analysis. In addition to these, IRI’s Data Library has powerful abilities to manipulate, analyse, plot, and download data from various sources including S2S with server-side computation.


Figure 2: Courtesy of the S2S Museum, this figure shows S2S model forecasts of the NAO launched on January 31st 2019. The verifying scenario is shown in black, with ensemble means in grey. All models exhibited a negative ensemble-mean bias and did not capture the development of a positive NAO after February 10th.

It’s inspiring and motivating to be part of the sub-seasonal forecast research community and I’m excited to present some of my work in the near future!

TIGGE and S2S can be accessed via ECMWF’s Public Datasets web interface.

Night at the Museum!

On Friday November 30th, Prof. Paul Williams and I ran a ‘pop-up science’ station at the Natural History Museum’s “Lates” event (these are held on the last Friday of each month; the museum is open for all until 10pm, with additional events and activities). Our station was entitled “Turbulence Ahead”, and focused on communicating research under two themes:

  1.  Improving the predictability of clear-air turbulence (CAT) for aviation
  2.  The impact of climate change on aviation, particularly in terms of increasing CAT

There were several other stations, all run by NERC-funded researchers. Our stall went ‘live’ at 6 PM, and from that point on we were speaking almost constantly for the next 3.5 hours – with hundreds (not an exaggeration!) of people coming to our stall to find out more. Neither of us were able to take much of a break, and I’ve never had quite such a sore voice!

IMG_1769
Turbulence ahead? Not on this Friday evening!

Our discussions covered:

  • What is clear-air turbulence (CAT) and why is it hazardous to aviation?
  • How do we predict CAT? How has Paul’s work improved this?
  • How is CAT predicted to change in the future? Why?
  • What other ways does climate change affect aviation?

Those who came to our stall asked some very intelligent questions, and neither of us encountered a ‘climate denier’ – since we were speaking about a very applied impact of climate change, this was heartening. This impact of climate change is not often considered – it’s not as obvious as heatwaves or melting ice, but is a very real threat as shown in recent studies (e.g. Storer et al. 2017). It was a challenge to explain some of these concepts to the general public – some had heard of the jet stream, others had not, whilst some were physicists… and even the director of the British Geological Survey, John Ludden, turned up! It was interesting to hear from so many people who were self-titled “nervous flyers” and deeply concerned about the future potential for more unpleasant journeys.

I found the evening very rewarding; it was interesting to gauge a perspective of how the public perceive a scientist and their work, and it was amazing to see so many curious minds wanting to find out more about subjects with which they are not so familiar.

My involvement with this event stems from my MMet dissertation work with Paul and Tom Frame looking at the North Atlantic jet stream. Changes in the jet stream have large impacts on transatlantic flights (Williams 2016) and the frequency and intensity of CAT. Meanwhile, Paul was a finalist for the 2018 NERC Impact Awards in the Societal Impact category for his work on improving turbulence forecasts – he finished as runner-up in the ceremony which was held on Monday December 3rd.

So, yes, there may indeed be turbulent times ahead – but this Friday evening certainly went smoothly!

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

Twitter: @SimonLeeWx

References

Storer, L. N., P. D. Williams, and M. M. Joshi, 2017: Global Response of Clear-Air Turbulence to Climate Change. Geophys. Res. Lett., 44, 9979-9984, https://doi.org/10.1002/2017GL074618

Williams, P. D., 2016: Transatlantic flight times and climate change. Environ. Res. Lett., 11, 024008, https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/11/2/024008.

It’s a #GlobalHeatwave

Email: s.h.lee@pgr.reading.ac.uk 

Sometimes a simple tweet on a Sunday evening can go a long way.

This summer’s persistent dry and warm weather in the UK has led to many comparisons to the summer of 1976, which saw a lethal combination of the warmest June-August mean maximum temperatures (per the Met Office record stretching back to 1910) and a record-breaking lack of rainfall (a measly 104.6 mm – since bested by 1995’s 103.0 mm –  compared with the record-wettest 384.4 mm in 1912). When combined with a hot summer the year before and a dry winter, water shortages were historic and the summer has become a benchmark to which all UK heatwaves are compared. So far, 2018 has set a new record for the driest first half of summer for the UK (a record stretching back to 1961) but it remains to be seen whether it will truly rival ’76.

All these comparisons made me wonder: what did global temperatures look like during the heatwave of 1976? Headlines have been filled with news of other heatwaves across the Northern Hemisphere, including in AfricaFinland and Japan. Was the UK heatwave in 1976 also part of a generally warm pattern?

So I had a look at the data using the plotting tool available on NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) site, and composed a relatively simple tweet which took off in a manner only fitting for a planet undergoing rapid warming:

At the time of writing, it’s been retweeted over 8,800 times in under 48 hours and featured as part of a Twitter Moment. Even Héctor Bellerín, a footballer for Arsenal, retweeted it!

Once the tweet had taken on a life of its own, I was also well aware of so-called “climate change deniers” (I don’t like the term, but it’s the best I can do) lurking out there, and I was somewhat apprehensive of what might get said. I’ve seen Paul Williams have many not-so-pleasant Twitter encounters on the subject of climate change. However, I was actually quite surprised. Aside from a few comments here and there from ‘deniers’ (usually focusing on fundamental misunderstandings of averaging periods and the interpolation used by NASA to deal with areas of low data coverage), the response was generally positive. People were shocked, frightened, moved…and thankful to have perhaps finally grasped what global warming meant.

I endeavoured to keep it cordial and scientific, as the issue is too big to make enemies over – we all need to work together to tackle the problem.

So, maybe now I have some idea how Ed Hawkins felt when his global warming spiral went viral and eventually ended up in the 2016 Olympics opening ceremony. I guess the biggest realisation for me is that, as a scientist, I’m familiar with graphics such as these showing the extent of global warming, but the wider public clearly aren’t – and that’s part of the reason I believe the tweet became so popular.

I can’t say that the 2018 UK heatwave is due to global warming. However, with unusually high temperatures present across the globe, it takes less significant weather patterns to produce significant heatwaves in the UK (and elsewhere). And with the jet streams that guide our weather systems already feeling the effects of climate change (something which I researched as an undergraduate), we can only expect more extremes in the future.