The Influence of the Weather on Bird Migration


As well as being a meteorologist, I am a bird watcher. This means I often combine meteorology and bird watching to see the impact of the weather on birds. Now that we are well into March my focus in bird watching turns to one thing – the migration.

March generally marks the time when the first summer migrants start arriving into the UK. Already this year we have had reports of Sand Martin, Wheatear, Garganey, Little Ringed Plover, White Wagtail, Osprey, Swallow, House Martin, Ring Ouzel and Whitethroat (up to 9 March), some of which are depicted below.

White Wagtail

There are many people that consider the arrival dates of certain migratory species of birds and how this arrival date changes over many years. I do keep extensive records of the birds that I see (and thus arrival dates), but what interests me more are the odd days in the record, and the sightings of unusual birds and working out how they arrived at their destinations.

A good example of this can be found by looking at my first Swallow sighting of the year in Kent and East Sussex. Since I started bird watching in 2001 my first Swallow of the year has moved from around 10 April to between 26-March and 1 April. However in 2013 my first record was 15 April. Then in 2015 and 2016 I saw my first Swallow on 1 April and 27 March respectively (I was in Cheshire in 2014 in late March/early April).

So what happened; why were the Swallows late in Kent in 2013? Well, it all comes down to wind direction. The spring of 2013 was very chilly and along the east coast there were plenty of N/NE winds – this would have provided a head wind so the Swallows would preferentially not migrate up the east coast in those conditions but instead migrate up the west coast where there were southerlies.

So, the wind direction plays a key part in the migration of birds. If conditions are for a tailwind or very light winds the birds will migrate; otherwise they will stay put. However, headwinds can lead to some interesting phenomena associated with bird migration – ‘falls’.

A ‘fall’ occurs when there are a large number of migrants building up along the coastline at a departure point (so for the interest of UK bird watchers Northern France), as they cannot get to their destination. When the wind direction changes the birds will then migrate en masse and quite literally fall out of the sky.

It’s not all about the wind direction though; rain is also a key factor that bird watchers consider when looking at weather forecasts. Essentially, fronts and showers are great for bird watchers. On migration birds will often fly higher than they normally would. This means on a clear sunny day you could easily miss birds passing overhead as they are so high up. However, with the rain the birds will often fly lower, avoiding the in-cloud turbulence. For many of the summer migrants their food sources (insects) also fly lower in these conditions.

This means that a forecast of showers with a southerly wind is generally what I look for from mid-April onwards (particularly as an inland birder), as it means there is a good chance of migratory species turning up – also because then I can head out after work as the evenings are brighter. This is something that I did last year and ended up recording the first Sandwich Tern (photo below (not of the bird I saw)) of the year in Berkshire.

Sandwich Tern

So in summary, it’s not as simple as just keeping an eye on the wind direction – there are other factors that can influence the birds’ migration and where they will end up. For more information about the impact of weather on bird sightings (considering both rare and common birds) check out my blog.

AGU Fall Meeting – Posters and Protests


From 12th to 16th December 2016, the annual American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting took place at the Moscone Centre in San Francisco. AGU remains the largest Earth and Space Science conference in the world with more than 25,000 scientists.

Overlooking the Poster Hall in Moscone South

At the 2016 Fall Meeting, I was one of around 8000 students who arrived in San Francisco to present one of the 15,000 posters that would be displayed over the course of the week. While I knew that AGU is one of the largest Earth science conferences, and had indeed spent hours on the plane fine-tuning my schedule to choose which of the ~200 hydrology sessions (let alone the meteorology sessions also related to my work) I would attend, the scope and diversity of the research presented throughout the week really sunk in when I stood on the mezzanine overlooking the poster hall on the first day of the conference.

I was lucky enough to be awarded an AGU student travel grant in order to present my latest PhD research that I’ve been working on at the University of Reading, in collaboration with the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), and funded by NERC as part of the SCENARIO Doctoral Training Partnership. My work maps the historical probability of increased (or decreased) flood hazard across the globe during ENSO (El Niño and La Niña) events, using the first 20th Century ensemble river flow reanalysis, created at ECMWF as part of this work. But more on that another time!

blogpostscreenshotUnlike other conferences I’d presented at, the poster sessions at AGU span half a day – while you are only expected to be there to discuss the work for two hours, it’s inevitable that you get caught up in discussion and I saw many presenters (myself included) who stuck by their poster for the full 4.5 hours! I thoroughly enjoyed my poster session, where several familiar faces dropped by for an update on my work, and others stopped to pose new questions and make a few suggestions for improvements to my maps (wait, why didn’t I think of that?!). As a student presenter, I could also register for the Outstanding Student Poster Award – which means that my poster was anonymously judged, and I will soon be receiving  feedback on my poster and presentation – an opportunity I was excited about to make sure I continue to improve the way I communicate my research.

For me, some of the sessions that were highlights of the conference included  ‘Global Floods: Forecasting, Monitoring, Risk Assessment and Socioeconomic Response‘, ‘Large-scale Climate Variability and its Impact on Hydrological Systems, Water Resources and Population‘, ‘Forecasting Hydrology at Continental Scale‘, ‘Transforming Hydrologic Prediction and Decision Making: Uncertainty’ and ‘ENSO Dynamics, Observations and Predictability in light of the 2015-2016 El Niño Event‘. With such a range of science being presented, there’s also plenty of opportunity (well, so long as you haven’t double- or triple-booked sessions in your schedule already!) to listen to talks outside of your own field – which is how I ended up in an 8am talk on operational earthquake forecasting and early warning. It was brilliant to learn about forecasting natural hazards outside of hydrology and meteorology!

There was also the social aspect that’s a big part of any conference – networking, networking and more networking! While it can be daunting, particularly at a conference of this size, to find and introduce yourself to scientists in your field whose work you’ve read but you’ve never met, I was pleased to first bump into some friendly faces who in turn introduced me to the new faces. Plus, it’s an AGU tradition that ‘AGU beer’ is served at 3.30pm sharp and the conference centre fills with groups of friends and colleagues in heated debates and discussions about anything from volcanoes to Jupiter’s magnetosphere.

It was impossible not to notice, however, the many more politically-themed conversations than would normally be overheard at such an event, as a result of uncertainty about the future of science in light of the recent US presidential election. While I was in the middle of research discussions at my poster, a ‘Stand up for Science‘ rally took place a few blocks away from the conference centre, where scientists donned lab coats and held signs – “stand up for science”, “ice has no agenda – it just melts” – protesting to raise awareness of the challenges, and to support science. You can read the Guardian article here.


All in all, AGU was a brilliant chance to present and discuss part of my research that I had just finished – it was certainly overwhelming and tough to choose which sessions to stop by (which meant I missed one or two presentations that sounded great), but I would recommend it for showcasing your work (and receiving feedback via the OSPA) and meeting scientists in your field that you wouldn’t normally bump into at conferences in Europe, especially if you can apply for one of AGU’s travel grants to help cover the costs of getting there.

P.S. You can watch presentations from the AGU Fall Meeting 2016 on the website.

Of course, I couldn’t fly all the way out to California and not find time to explore San Francisco a little.



From foehn to intense rainfall: the importance of Alps in influencing the regional weather


Figure 1: View from Monte Lema (Italy-Switzerland) looking West. The Lake Maggiore region and the southern Alpine foothills are visible in the foreground whereas Monte Rosa and the Pennine Alps behind them are partially hidden by a characteristic foehn wall.  (A. Volonté, 4 January 2017)

The interaction between atmospheric flow and topography is at the origin of various important weather phenomena, as we have already seen in Carly Wright’s blog post. When a mountain range is particularly high and extended it can even block or deflect weather systems, as it happens with the Alps. For example, in Figure 1 we can see the main Alpine range with its over-4000m-high peaks blocking a cold front coming from the north. The main ridge acts as a wall, enhancing condensation and precipitation processes on the upstream side (stau condition) and leaving clear skies on the downstream lee side, where dry and mild katabatic foehn winds flow. The contrast is striking between sunny weather on Lake Maggiore and snowy conditions over Monte Rosa, just a few miles apart. The same phenomenon is shown in Figure 2 with a satellite image that highlights how a cold front coming from northwest gets blocked by the Alpine barrier. A person enjoying the sunny day in the southern side of the Alps, if unaware of this mechanism, would be very surprised  to know that the current weather is so different on the other side of the range.

Figure 2: Satellite image (MODIS-NASA) over the Alps and Po Valley on 22 October 2014
Figure 3: same as Figure 1 but on 13 December 2016

A comparison with Figure 3 helps to notice that in Figure 2 the shape of the cloud band closely mirrors the mountain range. As an additional remark,  this comparison shows that foehn bring clear skies even in the Po Valley, having blown away the typical mist/fog occurring in the region in Autumn and Winter months in high pressure regimes. The  stau/foehn dynamics is actually very fascinating, and you can read more about it in Elvidge and Renfrew (2015 ) and in Miltenberger et al. (2016), among others. Unfortunately, the interaction of weather systems with the Alps can often trigger very damaging phenomena, like heavy and long-lasting precipitation on one side of the slope, and this is what the rest of this post will be focused on. In fact, the most recent event of this kind just happened at the end of November, with intense and long-lasting rain affecting the southern slope of the Alps  and causing floods particularly in the Piedmont region, in northwestern Italy ( Figure 4).

Figure 4: River Tanaro flooding in the town of Garessio, 24 November 2016 (Piedmont, Italy). Source:
Figure 5: rainfall accumulated between 21 and 26 November 2016 in the Piedmont region. Source: Regional Agency for the protection of the Environment – Piedmont

Figure 5 shows that the accumulated rainfall in the event goes over 300 mm in a large band that follows the shape of the southern Alpine slope in the region (see map of Piedmont, from Google Maps), reaching even 600 mm in a few places. This situation is the result of moist southerly flow being blocked by the Alps and thus causing ascent and consequent precipitation to persist on the same areas for up to five days. It is quite common to see quasi-stationary troughs enter the Mediterranean region during Autumn months causing strong and long-lasting moist flows to move towards the Alps. Hence, it is crucial to understand  where the heaviest precipitation will occur. In other words, will it rain the most on top of the ridge or on the upstream plain? What processes are controlling the location of heavy precipitation with respect to the slope?

The study published by Davolio et al. (2016), available here and originated from my master degree’s thesis, tackles this issue focusing on northeastern Italy. In fact, the analysis includes three case studies in which heavy and long-lasting rain affected the eastern Alps and other three case studies in which intense rainfall was mainly located on the upstream plain. Although all the events showed common large-scale patterns and similar mesoscale settings, characterised by moist southerly low-level flow interacting with the Alps, the rainfall distribution turned out to be very dissimilar. The study highlights that the two precipitation regimes strongly differ in terms of interaction of the flow with the mountain barrier. When the flow is able to go over the Alps the heaviest rain occurs on top of the ridge. When the flow is instead blocked and deflected by the ridge (flow around), creating a so-called barrier wind, intense convection is triggered on the upstream plain (Figure 6) .

Figure 6: Schematic diagram of the key mechanisms governing the two different wind and precipitation patterns over NE Italy. (a) Blocked low-level flow, barrier wind, convergence and deep convection over the plain, upstream the orography. (b) Flow over conditions with orographic lifting and precipitation mainly over the Alps. From Davolio et al. (2016)
Figure 7: cross section going from the Adriatic Sea to the Alps in one of the events simulated. Equivalent potential temperature is shaded, thick black lines indicate clouds while arrows show tangent wind component. See Davolio et al. (2016)

The key mechanism that explains this different evolution is connected to the thermodynamic state of the impinging flow. In fact, when the southerly moist and warm air gets close to the Alpine barrier it is lifted above the colder air already present at the base of the orography. It can be said that the colder air behaves as a first effective mountain for the incoming flow. If this lifting process triggers convection, then the persistence of a blocked-flow condition is highly favoured (see Figure 7). On the contrary, if this initial lifting process does not trigger convection the intense moist flow will eventually be able to go over the ridge, where a more substantial ascent will take place, causing heavy rain on the ridge top. This study also looks at numerical parameters used in more idealised analyses (like in Miglietta and Rotunno (2009)), finding a good agreement with the theory.

To summarise, we can say that the Alpine range is able to significantly modify weather systems when interacting with them. Thus, an in-depth understanding of the processes taking place during the interaction, along with a coherent model is necessary to capture correctly the effects on the local weather, being either a rainfall enhancement, the occurrence of foehn winds or various other phenomena.


Davolio, S., Volonté A., Manzato A., Pucillo A., Cicogna A. and Ferrario M.E. (2016), Mechanisms producing different precipitation patterns over north-eastern Italy: insights from HyMeX-SOP1 and previous events. Q.J.R. Meteorol. Soc., 142 (Suppl 1): 188-205. doi:10.1002/qj.2731

Elvidge A. D., Renfrew, I. A. (2015). The causes of foehn warming in the lee of mountains. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 97: 455466, doi:10.1175/BAMS-D-14-00194.1.

Miglietta M. and Rotunno R., (2009) Numerical Simulations of Conditionally Unstable Flows over a Mountain Ridge. J. Atmos. Sci., 66, 1865–1885, doi: 10.1175/2009JAS2902.1. 

Miltenberger, A. K., Reynolds, S. and Sprenger, M. (2016), Revisiting the latent heating contribution to foehn warming: Lagrangian analysis of two foehn events over the Swiss Alps. Q.J.R. Meteorol. Soc., 142: 2194–2204. doi:10.1002/qj.2816

What is loss and damage from climate change?

Characterizing loss and damage from climate change
James et al., 2014. Nature Climate Change, 4, 938–939. doi:10.1038/nclimate2411


Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), countries negotiate how to address the impacts of anthropogenic climate change through mitigation and adaptation. Despite these efforts, climate-related events still cause huge impacts across the globe every year. Impacts can be particularly  devastating in developing countries and this is what the relatively new area of ‘loss and damage’ in the negotiations aims to address.

In 2013, the UNFCCC established the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) to “address loss and damage associated with impacts of climate change, including extremes events and slow onset events, in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change” (UNFCCC, 2013). Two decades of negotiating went into forming this mechanism, since the first calls from small island developing states in the early 1990s to address the effects of sea level rise.

Island states such as Vanuatu in the South Pacific have been requesting support for the impacts of sea level rise since the early 1990s. Source: Meredith James/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The WIM states it will address the impacts of both extreme events (such as floods and heatwaves) and slow onset events (such as sea level rise). However, as yet, there is no official definition of what loss and damage will actually encompass. In our commentary in Nature Climate Change (James et al., 2014), we considered one aspect of defining loss and damage: whether loss and damage would need to be attributed to anthropogenic climate change. As the text of the WIM describes “loss and damage associated with the impacts of climate change” and the UNFCCC’s definition of climate change is that which is “attributed directly or indirectly to human activity” (UNFCCC, 1992), this could imply that there would need to be proof that impacts from events were caused by anthropogenic climate change.

If this were the case, impacts would first need to be attributed to particular events (e.g. the infrastructure damaged by a particular flood), and then the event would need to be attributed to anthropogenic climate change. For slow-onset events like sea level rise, the science attributing these to anthropogenic climate change is well-established. However for individual events it is much more challenging to say how climate change had an influence. Extreme event attribution can, for some types of events, estimate how anthropogenic climate change affected the probability of the particular event occurring. This generally relies on large ensembles of climate model simulations, which are necessary to estimate the probabilities of such rare events, and studies therefore rely on the ability of the models to represent the processes that produce the extreme event in question. Observations are also necessary to both to validate the model simulations and define the extreme event to be studied, which are not always available, particularly in developing countries. Up to now, studies attributing specific events have been carried out on an ad hoc basis in the aftermath of particularly extreme events, rather than more systematically. They have also mainly focussed on events in developed countries, rather than the developing countries the WIM aims to assist.

Typhoon Haiyan caused devastation in November 2013 as the WIM was being negotiated. It was used as an example of loss and damage, but without any consideration of whether anthropogenic climate change played a role. Is this an important consideration? Source: DFID/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

While the attribution of events to anthropogenic climate change could be relevant to addressing loss and damage, it is controversial in negotiations. This is in part due to its perceived association with compensation claims. However we suggest that, somewhere along the line, the question of causality is likely to come up, to establish just what the loss and damage being addressed is. Attribution may or may not have a role to play here. What is key is that as event attribution science is continuing to develop, scientists and policymakers need to have opportunities for conversations about what information the science can provide and how this could be applied if it was deemed necessary for policy.

Since writing our commentary we have continued to research this science-policy interface. We have investigated what is understood about event attribution science by stakeholders associated with loss and damage negotiations and how they think it could be relevant (Parker et al., 2016). We have also investigated how policymakers and practitioners are defining ‘loss and damage’, as this still has no official definition and there are differing perspectives among those looking to address loss and damage. Our aim is that by better understanding this policy context, the science will be able to develop in ways that are most relevant to the needs of decision makers and, if deemed relevant, ultimately help to address loss and damage in vulnerable regions.

This work forms part of the ACE-Africa project, for more information see 


James, R., Otto, F., Parker, H., Boyd, E., Cornforth, R., Mitchell, D., & Allen, M. (2014). Characterizing loss and damage from climate change. Nature Climate Change, 4, 938-939, doi: 10.1038/nclimate2411.

Parker, H. R. , Boyd, E., Cornforth, R. J., James, R., Otto, F. E. L., & Allen, M. R. (2016). Stakeholder perceptions of event attribution in the loss and damage debate. Climate Policy, doi: 10.1080/14693062.2015.1124750.

UNFCCC (1992). Article 1: Definitions

UNFCCC (2013). Decision 2/CP.19: Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage Associated with Climate Change Impacts FCCC/CP/2013/10/Add.1

Showers: How well can we predict them?


Showers are one of the many examples of convective events experienced in the UK, other such events include thunderstorms, supercells and squall lines. These type of events form most often in the summer but can also form over the sea in the winter. They form because the atmosphere is unstable, i.e. warm air over a cooler surface, this results in the creation of thermals. If there is enough water vapour in the air and the thermal reaches high enough the water vapour will condense and eventually form a convective cloud. Convective events produce intense, often very localised, rainfall, which can result in flash floods, e.g. Boscastle 2004.

Boscastle flood 2004 – BBC News

Flash floods are very difficult to predict, unlike flood events that happen from the autumnal and winter storms e.g. floods from Storms Desmond and Frank last winter, and the current floods (20-22 November). So often there is limited lead time for emergency services to react to flash flood events. One of the main reasons why flash floods are difficult to predict is the association with convective events because these events only last for a few hours (6 hours at the longest) and only affect a very small area.

One of the aspects of forecasting the weather that researchers look into is the predictability of certain events. My PhD considers the predictability of convective events within different situations in the UK.

The different situations I am considering are generally split into two regimes: convective quasi-equilibrium and non-equilibrium convection.

In convective quasi-equilibrium any production of instability in the atmosphere is balanced by its release (Arakawa and Schubert, 1974). This results in scattered showers, which could turn up anywhere in a region where there is large-scale ascent. This is typical of areas behind fronts and to the left of jet stream exit regions. Because there are no obvious triggers (like flow over mountains or cliffs) you can’t pin-point the exact location of a shower.  We often find ourselves in this sort of situation in April, hence April showers.

Classic convective quasi-equilibrium conditions in the UK – scattered showers on 20 April 2012 – Dundee Satellite Receiving Station

On the other hand in non-equilibrium convection the instability is blocked from being released so energy in the system builds-up over time. If this inhibiting factor is overcome all the instability can be released at once and will result in ‘explosive’ convection (Emanuel, 1994).  Overcoming the inhibiting factor usually takes place locally, such as a sea breeze or flow up mountains, etc. so these give distinct triggers and help tie the location of these events down. These are the type of situations that occur frequently over continents in the spring and often result in severe weather.

Non-equilibrium convection – convergence line along the North Cornish Coast, 2 August 2013 – Dundee Satellite Receiving Station

It’s useful having these regimes to categorise events to help determine what happens in the forecasts of different situations but only if we understand a little bit about their characteristics. For the initial part of my work I considered the regimes over the British Isles and found that  we mainly have convective events in convective quasi-equilibrium (showers) – on average roughly 85% of convective events in the summer are in this regime (Flack et al., 2016). Therefore it is pertinent to ask how well can we predict showers?

To see how well we can predict showers, and other types of convection, the forecast itself is examined. This is done by adding small-scale variability into the model, throughout the forecast, to determine what would happen if the starting conditions (or any other time in the model) changed. This is run a number of times to create an ensemble.

Deterministic forecast vs Ensemble forecast schematic, dotted lines represent model trajectories, the bright red represents the truth, darker red represents the forecast

Using ensembles we can determine the uncertainty in the weather forecast, this can either be in terms of spatial positioning, timing or intensity of the event. My work has mainly considered the spatial positioning and intensity of the convection, and is to be submitted shortly to Monthly Weather Review. The intensity in my ensemble shows similar variation in both regimes, suggesting that there are times when the amount of rainfall predicted can be spot on. Most of the interesting results appear to be linked to the location of the events. The ensembles for the non-equilibrium cases generally show agreement between location of the events, so we can be fairly confident about their location (so here your weather app would be very good). On the other hand, when it comes to showers there is no consistency between the different forecasts so they could occur anywhere  (so when your app suggests showers be careful – you may or may not get one).

So I’ll answer my question that I originally posed with another question: What do you want from a forecast? If the answer to this question is “I want to know if there is a chance of rain at my location” then yes we can predict that you might get caught by a shower. If on the other hand your answer is “I want exact details, for my exact location, e.g. is there going to be a shower at 15:01 on Saturday at Stonehenge yes or no?” Then the answer is, although we are improving forecasts, we can’t give that accurate a forecast when it comes to scattered showers, simply because of their very nature.

With forecasts improving all the time and the fact that they are looking more realistic it does not mean that every detail of a forecast is perfect. As with forecasting in all areas (from politics to economy) things can take an unexpected turn so caution is advised. When it comes to the original question of showers then it’s always best to be prepared.

This work has been funded by the Natural Environmental Research Council under the project Flooding From Intense Rainfall, for more project details and project specific blogs visit:


Arakawa, A. and W. H. Schubert, 1974: Interaction of a Cumulus Cloud Ensemble with the Large-Scale Environment, Part I. J. Atmos. Sci., 31, 674-701.

Emanuel, K. A., 1994: Atmospheric convection, Oxford University Press, 580 pp.

Flack, D. L. A., R. S. Plant, S.L. Gray, H. W. Lean, C. Keil and G. C. Craig, 2016: Characterisation of Convective Regimes over the British Isles. Quart. J. Roy. Meteorol. Soc., 142, 1541-1553.  


Air Pollution – The Cleaner Side of Climate Change?


Air pollution is a major global problem, with the World Health Organisation recently linking 1 in 8 global deaths to this invisible problem. I say invisible, what air pollution may seem is an almost invisible problem. My PhD looks at some of the largest air pollutants, particulate matter PM10, which is still only 1/5th the width of a human hair in diameter!

My project looks at whether winter (December – February) UK PM10 concentration ([PM10]) exceedance events will change in frequency or composition in a future climate. To answer this question, a state of the art climate model is required. This model simulates the atmosphere only and is an iteration of the Met-Office HADGEM3 model. The climate simulation models a future 2050 under the RCP8.5 emissions scenario, the highest greenhouse-gas emission scenario considered in IPCC-AR5 (Riahi et al., 2011).

In an attempt to model PM10 in the climate model (a complex feat, currently tasked to the coupled UKCA model), we have idealised the problem, making the results much easier to understand. We have emitted chemically inert tracers in the model, which represent the key sources of PM10 throughout mainland Europe and the UK. The source regions identified were: West Poland, Po Valley, BENELUX and the UK. While the modelled tracers were shown to replicate observed PM10 well, albeit with inevitable sources of lost variability, they were primarily used to identify synoptic flow regimes influencing the UK. The motivation of this work is to determine whether the flow regimes that influence the UK during UK PM10 episodes, change in a future climate.

As we are unable to accurately replicate observed UK [PM10] within the model, we need to generate a proxy for UK [PM10] episodes. We chose to identify the synoptic meteorological conditions (synoptic scale ~ 1000 km) that result in UK air pollution episodes. We find that the phenomenon of atmospheric blocking in the winter months, in the Northeast Atlantic/ European region, provide the perfect conditions for PM10 accumulation in the UK. In the Northern Hemisphere winter, Rossby Wave Breaking (RWB) is the predominant precursor to atmospheric blocking (Woollings et al., 2008). RWB is the meridional overturning of air masses in the upper troposphere, so that warm/cold air is advected towards the pole/equator. The diagnostic chosen to detect RWB on is potential temperature (θ) on the potential vorticity = 2 Potential vorticity units surface, otherwise termed the dynamical tropopause. The advantages of using this diagnostic for detecting RWB have been outlined in this study’s first publication; Webber et al., (2016). Figure 1 illustrates this mechanism and the metric used to diagnose RWB, BI, introduced by Pelly and Hoskins (2003).

Fig. 1 – A schematic of Rossby Wave Breaking, breaking in a clockwise (anticyclonic) direction. The black contour represents a θ contour on the 2PVU surface, otherwise termed the dynamical tropopause. The colour shading represents θ anomalies, with red/ blue being warm/cold θ anomalies. The metric used to identify RWB is shown as the BI metric and is the mean θ in the 15 degrees latitude to the north subtracted by that to the south of the centre of overturning (black dot).

In Fig. 1 warm air is transported to the north of cold air to the south. This mechanism generates an anticyclone to the north of the centre of overturning (black circle in Fig 1) and a cyclone to the south. If the anticyclone to north becomes quasi-stationary, a blocking anticyclone is formed, which has been shown to generate conditions favourable for the accumulation of PM10.

To determine whether there exists a change in RWB frequency, due to climate change (a climate increment), the difference in RWB frequency between two simulations must be taken. The first of these is a free-running present day simulation, which provides us with the models representation of a present day atmosphere. The second is a future time-slice simulation, representative of the year 2050. Figure 2 shows the difference between the two simulations, with positive values representing an increase in RWB frequency in a future climate. The black contoured region corresponds to the region where the occurrence of RWB significantly increases UK [PM10].

Fig 2. Climate increment in RWB frequency, with red/blue shading representing an increase/ decrease in RWB frequency in a future climate. The thick black contour represents the region where the occurrence of RWB significantly raises mean UK [PM10].
RWB frequency anomalies within the black contoured region are of most importance within this study. Predominantly the RWB frequency anomaly, within the black contour, can be described as a negative frequency anomaly. However, there also exist heterogeneous RWB frequency anomalies within the contoured region. What is shown is that there is a tendency for RWB to occur further north and eastward in a future climate. These shifts in the regions of RWB occurrence influence a shift in the resulting flow regimes that influence the UK.

Climate shifts in flow regimes were analysed, however only for the most prominent subset of RWB events. RWB can be subset into cyclonic and anti-cyclonic RWB (CRWB and ACRWB respectively) and both have quite different impacts on UK [PM10] (Webber et al., 2016).  ACRWB events are the most prominent RWB subset within the Northeast Atlantic/ European region (Weijenborg et al., 2012). Figure 1 represents ACRWB, with overturning occurring in a clockwise direction about the centre of overturning and these events were analysed for climate shifts in resultant flow regimes.

The analysis of climate flow regime shifts, provides the most interesting result of this study. We find that there exists a significant (p<0.05) increase in near European BENELUX tracer transport into the UK and a significant reduction of UK tracer accumulation, following ACRWB events. What we therefore see is that while in the future we see a reduction in the number of RWB and ACRWB events in a region most influential to UK [PM10], there also exists a robust shift in the resulting flow regime. Following ACRWB, there exists an increased tendency for the transport of European PM10 and decreased locally sourced [PM10] in the UK. Increased European transport may result in increased long-range transport of smaller and potentially more toxic (Gehring et al., 2013) PM2.5 particles from Europe.


Gehring, U., Gruzieva, O., Agius, R. M., Beelen, R., Custovic, A., Cyrys, J., Eeftens, M., Flexeder, C., Fuertes, E., Heinrich, J., Hoffmann, B., deJongste, J. C., Kerkhof, M., Klümper, C., Korek, M., Mölter, A., Schultz, E. S., Simpson, A.,Sugiri, D., Svartengren, M., von Berg, A., Wijga, A. H., Pershagen, G. and Brunekreef B.: Air Pollution Exposure and Lung Function in Children: The ESCAPE Project. Children’s Health Prespect, 121,
1357-1364, doi:10.1289/ehp.1306770 , 2013.

Pelly, J. L and Hoskins, B. J.: A New Perspective on Blocking. J. Atmos. Sci, 50, 743-755, doi: 0469(2003)060<0743:ANPOB>2.0.CO;2, 2003.

Riahi, K., Rao S., Krey, V., Cho, C., Chirkov, V., Fischer, G., Kindermann, G., Nakicenovic, N. and Rafaj, P.: RCP 8.5—A scenario of comparatively high greenhouse gas emissions. Climatic Change, 109, no. 1-2, 33-57, doi: 10.1007/s10584-011-0149-y, 2011.

Webber, C. P., Dacre, H. F., Collins, W. J., and Masato, G.: The Dynamical Impact of Rossby Wave Breaking upon UK PM10 Concentration. Atmos. Chem. and Phys. Discuss, doi; 10.5194/acp-2016-571, 2016.

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NERC Into the Blue – the Science We Live and Breathe


One of the key aspects of science is communicating our work, not only to other scientists but also to the public. As part of the Manchester Science Festival the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) have been holding a number of events and last week (25 – 29 Oct) Into the Blue (a science showcase) was held at the Runway Visitor Centre underneath the wings of a Concorde. Along with a fellow PhD student from Reading (Kieran Hunt, who helped out on a stand about the monsoon) I was privileged to help man a stand (on flash flooding).

The event was used to showcase all the science that NERC funds from the atmosphere through to ecology. There were 40 exhibits and the chance to take tours of Concorde and the FAAM aircraft.

Concorde (left) and FAAM aircraft (right)

Exhibits involved a variety of interactive activities from making clouds in a bottle, using Infra-red cameras, making rivers in sand boxes, meeting Boaty McBoatface and a virtual reality flash flood!

During the quieter moments at their stands the exhibitors were allowed to wander around the rest of the event (including getting tours on the planes). In doing this we were able to talk to a number of different scientists about their work and engage in all the activities.

Personal highlights for me were touring both the Concorde and the FAAM aircraft. Although the best bit was the interaction with the public and being able to give everyone (no matter the age, from kids to adults) a “wow moment”.

The stand I was helping run was called FlashFlood! This stall was run predominantly by the University of Hull on behalf of the Flooding From Intense Rainfall (FFIR) project. They had created a virtual reality flash flood that was based on a real event (Thinhope Burn, 17 July 2007) which enabled us to place the stand’s visitor into a river valley and take them through the process of flooding from intense rainfall and how floods can change the characteristics of the rivers. It also gave us the ability (because of the case we had chosen) to show people that just because its not raining heavily at your location does not mean you won’t get flooded.


Having virtual reality was a massive draw for people to come to our stand so we were always fairly busy, but the feedback we had was very positive with the most frequent comments being,

  • “It felt like I was really there”
  • “It really helps me to visualise the science”
  • “Wow, this is really amazing”.

Comments like this really make events such as Into the Blue worth while for us as scientists as we then realise we are getting our messages through to people, and it shows the usefulness of scientific research to the public.

Events like this can be exhausting, but they are definitely worth the effort as you get to see the delight of the public as they learn about different science and have fun at the same time.

A big thank you must be said to NERC and Manchester Runway Visitor Centre for organizing and hosting the event and to all the exhibitors who did a great job in communicating science to the public.

NAWDEX Campaign – Experiencing the Jet Stream


NAWDEX (North Atlantic Wave and Downstream impact Experiment) was an International field campaign led by Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) Munich and the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR) Oberpfaffenhofen in cooperation with the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) Zurich and the Office of Naval Research in the USA, with many other international collaborators. Multiple aircraft were deployed from Iceland (the HALO aircraft and the DLR and Safire Falcons) and the UK (the FAAM aircraft) to take meteorological measurments with the aim of providing knowledge of mid-latitude dynamics and predictability. There was involvement from across the UK, including the University of Reading, the University of Manchester, and the Met Office as well as from the FAAM.

The NAWDEX operations centre was based in Keflavik, Iceland (number 27 in Figure 1), which I visited for a week to join the campaign as one of the representatives from the University of Reading, UK. I was tasked with being the ground-based observation coordinator.


Figure 1: Radiosonde launch locations for the campaign.

A Europe-wide network of radiosonde launch locations (Figure 1) had been readied for additional launches during the NAWDEX period. Our role was to choose sites to launch sondes from that would complement measurements taken by the aircraft and/or support one of the NAWDEX objectives. Of particular interest was downstream high impact weather events over Europe. It was great to be given real responsibility and be able to actually contribute to the NAWDEX project.

Below is a typical daily schedule I would have in Iceland:

Daily schedule:

UK call: 8:30am Icelandic. Conference call between UK parties discussing plans for the coming days and any updates from Iceland or the UK.

General meeting: 12pm Icelandic. Go over brief weather summary, instrument status reports, flight plans for the coming days and reports of previous flights.

Weather meeting: 4pm Icelandic. Detailed look at the weather situation for the short and medium-ranges, highlighting key features that would be of interest to fly into, e.g. extratropical transitions of tropical cyclones (which we were fortunate to observe more than once). Radiosonde launch updates.

In between: assessing forecasts and flight plans for the coming days and meeting with scientists for their input to decide where we want to launch radiosondes from. Along with preparing slides to present to the group proposed launch locations and emailing various meteorological services to request the launches (the most time consuming).

My time in Iceland was a great learning experience. Working with some of the pre-eminent scientists in the fields of dynamics and predictability (and spending most of the day discussing the weather!) really helped improve my understanding of the development of mid-latitude weather systems and better understand their predictability.


Figure 2: On-board the FAAM aircraft.

After returning from Iceland I got the opportunity to fly on the FAAM aircraft (Figure 2) whilst it was on a mission for another project. The flight aim was to perform a radiometer inter-comparison by taking coordinated measurements of deep-frontal cloud to the north of Scotland with the HALO and Safire aircraft. The flight was remarkably turbulent free (I‘d been hoping for more of a roller coaster ride), although we did perform a profile right through the cloud to an altitude of less than 50 ft, which was pretty fun! Whilst on the aircraft we were also able to plot measurements being taken in real time on an on-board computer.


Figure 3: Flying at an altitude of 35 ft.

NAWDEX was a great opportunity to get first-hand experience of a major international field campaign (and see some of Iceland).


What will make the public and politicians take climate change seriously?



Imagine you’re creating a problem that we don’t understand. A problem where the majority of people just go, “meh, not important, I don’t really get it”.

What would it look like?

It would be complex, uncertain, something in the future and possibly an issue that was geographically distant.

Now those factors should you remind of climate change, and on 5th October 2016 the South-East Royal Meteorological Society local centre hosted a meeting where a panel of experts were presented with the question, “What will make the public and politicians take climate change seriously?”

The panel included professionals from a range of backgrounds including Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, leading expert in meteorology and climate, and first director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, Imperial College London. Dr Rachel McCloy a well-respected figure in behavioural science with experience in policy making in the former Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Treasury. Finally, Paul Simons a prominent journalist for the Times known for the depth of scientific understanding in his articles.

Images taken during the RMetS South East local centre meeting (06/10/16). Left image: Panelists (from left to right) including Dr Rachel McCloy, Sir Brian Hoskins and Paul Simons.

Sir Brian Hoskins opened the discussion with the challenge that we have a responsibility to “encourage” rather than “make” the public take climate change seriously, and recognised the progress in politics including targets announced in COP21, Paris and the UK Climate Change Act 2008. However, it was also recognised that climate change may not be prioritised high enough in political agendas, and the question was raised on whether governments take their environmental global responsibility seriously enough?

Discussion then moved onto personal actions each one of us can take to increase the public response. Repeating the “doom and gloom” message over climate change can become boring and repetitive, and we need to bring a positive message to tackling this global issue. We also need to recognise the responsibility of the individual in a global context and introduce small steps that can be taken to reduce our environmental impact.

One key message from Brian’s talk, and the meeting as whole, was that it’s currently hard for a member of the public to understand what climate change actually means to their daily lives. What impact will a 2°C global temperature rise actually cause? Researchers, the media and policymakers need to relate the science of global warming to our everyday lives, whether that’s through health, nutrition, the working environment, or air quality to name a few.

Our second speaker, Dr Rachel McCloy, introduced psychological behavioural frameworks that are introduced by climate change and how they impact the progression towards successful mitigation. For example, emotional reactions towards climate change can include dread and injustice, and this combined with typical adjectives used to describe the environmental changes including “natural” and “uncontrollable”, can lead to an increased likelihood of no effort being taken at all against climate change.

A component of Rachel’s talk I found particularly interesting was the impact of over-congratulating individuals and societies for taking “baby steps”. When we congratulate or applaud an action too much it reduces the likelihood of an even better action taking place. Therefore, as a society, we need to keep looking at the next step to mitigating against climate change. If we think about this in the present day, could we agree that we congratulated the agreements met in COP21 Paris too much, and as a result the likelihood of ratification and progress being made has been dropped. We as a community need to hold each other to account even when those “baby steps” have been made.

And finally, Paul, a leading science journalist for The Times, brought to the discussion how the media can be used to encourage climate change to be taken seriously. Everything in the media is a story and when a phenomena such climate change impacts health, water or even transportation it can gain a public interest. To increase the media’s attention to climate change, greater emphasis is needed on how environmental changes will impact our daily lives. Paul also reminded us that the public have begun to associate extreme weather events to climate change, whether proven to be a result of anthropogenic action or not. A recent example that comes to my mind is the recent European thunderstorms that occurred last summer. The media should be used to successfully “shape opinions” and it is up to us to grasp the opportunities that they have to offer.

After an intriguing set of three short talks to answer the question “What will make the public and politicians take climate change seriously?”, discussion was opened to the audience. Questions included: What is the importance of education to solving climate change? How much advocacy work should a climate scientist get involved in? The meeting as a whole stimulated a continued discussion on how climate change can be communicated effectively to “encourage” the public and politicians to take climate change seriously.

I would like to thank all three panellists for a set of thought-provoking and challenging talks. Thank you to the Royal Meteorological Society for supporting the local centre event, and to find out more about meetings taking place in your region check out

The impact of Climate Variability on the GB power system.


Bloomfield et al., 2016. Quantifying the increasing sensitivity of power systems to climate variability. View published paper.

Within the power system of Great Britain (GB), there is a rapidly increasing amount of generation from renewables, such as wind and solar power which are weather-dependent. An increased proportion of weather-dependent generation will require increased understanding of the impact of climate variability on the power system.


Figure 1: Predicted installed capacity from the National Grid Gone Green Scenario. Source: National Grid Future Energy Scenarios (2015).

Current research on the impact of climate variability on the GB power system is ongoing by climate scientists and power system modellers. The focus of the climate research is on the weather-driven components of the power system, such as the impact of climate variability on wind power generation. These studies tend to include limited knowledge of the whole system impacts of climate variability. The research by power system modellers focuses on the accurate representation of the GB power system. A limited amount of weather data may be used in this type of study (usually 1-10 years) due to the complexity of the power system models.

The aim of this project is to bridge the gap between these two groups of research, by understanding the impact of climate variability on the whole GB power system.In this project, multi-decadal records from the MERRA reanalysis* are combined with a simple representation of the GB power system, of which the weather-dependent components are electricity demand and wind power production. Multiple scenarios are analysed for GB power systems, including 0GW, 15GW, 30GW, and 45GW of installed wind power capacity in the system.

This study characterises the impact of inter-annual climate variability on multiple aspects of the GB power system (including coal, gas and nuclear generation) using a load duration curve framework. A load duration curve can be thought of as a cumulative frequency distribution of power system load. Load can be either power system demand (i.e. the NO-WIND scenario) or demand minus wind power (ie. the LOW, MED and HIGH scenarios).

The introduction of additional wind-power capacity greatly increases the year-year variability in operating opportunity for conventional generators, this is particularly evident for baseload plant (i.e. nuclear power plants). The impact of inter-annual climate variations across the power system due to present-day level of wind-farm installation has approximately doubled the exposure of the GB power sector to inter-annual climate variability. This is shown in Figure 2 as the spread between the red and blue curves (from the LOW scenario) is double that of the black curves (the NO-WIND scenario).


Figure 2: Load duration curves for the NO-WIND and LOW scenario in black and grey respectively. The two most extreme years from the LOW scenario are 1990 and 2010, plotted in red and blue respectively. Vertical dashed lines show the percentage of time that baseload-plant (91%) and peaking plant (7%) are required to operate

This work has shown that as the amount of installed wind power capacity on the power system is increased, the total amount of energy required from other generators (coal, gas, nuclear) is reduced. Wind therefore contributes to decarbonising the power system, however the reduction is particularly pronounced for plants which are operating as baseload rather than peaking plant (i.e. oil fired generation) where an increase in required production is seen.

This study adds to the literature which suggests that the power system modelling community should begin to take a more robust approach to its treatment of weather and climate data by incorporating a wider range of climate variability.

For more information contact the author for a copy of the paper with details of this work: Quantifying the increasing sensitivity of power system to climate variability (submitted to ERL).

* A reanalysis data set is a scientific method for developing a record of how weather and climate are changing over time. In it, observations are combined with a numerical model to generate a synthesised estimate of the state of the climate system.