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!

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!


Twitter: @SimonLeeWx


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,

Williams, P. D., 2016: Transatlantic flight times and climate change. Environ. Res. Lett., 11, 024008,

It’s a #GlobalHeatwave


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.