Superstars of STEM: making light work of heavy weather

The way we understand and apply meteorological information is ever-changing and Australian researchers are at the forefront of modelling, monitoring and predicting the weather in our region, and across the globe.

Chief Scientist of the Bureau of Meteorology, Sue Barrell, says that with increasing data, especially from satellites, and more powerful supercomputers, our ability to understand and predict the weather will transform the way we live and work. 

Already we have made great leaps forward in our forecasting skill, with a seven-day forecast today better than a three-day forecast 30 years ago.

“A small but powerful example of this is on the oil rigs at sea,” says Barrell.

“Often the people working on these rigs would need to be evacuated in case of a chance of dangerous weather, which would cost the company hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in evacuation costs and lost production.{%recommended 7469%}

“With more accurate predictions of tropical cyclones, the oil rig operators can more accurately assess the risks and avoid unnecessary evacuations, saving money for the business and for consumers.”

Barrell says a major focus for the Bureau is working more closely with customers to ensure that forecasts more directly assist them in their decision-making. “It’s not just what the weather will ‘be’ that’s important, but what the weather will ‘do’.”

In November 2016, one of the deadliest asthma events in Australia’s recent history left 10 people dead and thousands with respiratory problems. Health services and hospitals in the cities of Melbourne and Geelong, in the state of Victoria, were caught by surprise and unable to respond effectively. 

Barrell says that in the wake of such a major event, the challenge is to develop systems that will help minimise future impacts, and the Bureau of Meteorology is working hard to achieve that goal.

What made this 2016 storm different was the combination of several critical factors – a wet spring across the ryegrass areas to the north and west of Melbourne, the first really hot day since the previous summer, high humidity and a series of violent storms with ferocious winds, which meant airborne pollen was crushed into tiny fragments.

Usually, pollen particles are big enough to be caught by the nasal passages, which can cause a bit of discomfort, scratchiness, a running nose and sneezing, but won’t usually be life-threatening.

Beth Ebert, who has led the Bureau’s work in this area, says that pollen was given more potency than usual thanks to its smaller size. 

“A thunderstorm is a bit like a broom, which sweeps up the pollen and dust and hurtles it around,” she explains.

“Because the pollen was moist and breakable, we think the storm caused it to shatter into smaller pieces; small enough to bypass the nasal passages and go straight to the lungs.”

Barrell says the next stage involves collaborating with other scientists and health specialists to learn more and translate that knowledge into action.

“As the Bureau’s services improve, the demand for more accurate, more local, more immediate weather information and forecasts is constantly increasing,” she explains. 

“The Bureau is working in partnership with governments, emergency managers and industry to ensure these improvements translate to improved safety, productivity and well-being for Australians.

“The potential is big, and Australia is at the forefront of getting our weather predictions and monitoring to those who will benefit most from them.”

Sue Barrell is among 30 Superstars of STEM featured in this weekly series prepared by Science & Technology Australia (STA). To learn more about the program, visit the STA website.

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