Published On: April 14, 2023

The essential role the Met Office plays at times of severe weather and during related emergencies across the UK has been formalised with the recent granting of Category 2 Responder status.  This change in status strengthens the Met Office role at the heart of the UK resilience community, highlighting the significant work it already does to protect lives and property during periods of extreme weather and major incidents. It recognises the Met Office as a key organisation in planning for and responding to emergencies and incidents across the country. In this article, Simon Brown, Met Office Services Director, outlines how the change in status properly reflects its role in warnings and emergency response.

The Met Office has evolved since it was first established in 1854– our first public weather forecast was published in 1861, our first computer generated forecasts in 1965 and our world-leading impact-based National Severe Weather Warning Service was introduced in 2011.  However, one thing that remains much the same is our purpose – using our knowledge and expertise to help us all make better decisions to stay safe and thrive. Our world-leading weather and climate services help government, industry and citizens take informed action at all timescales and levels of impact – whether that’s helping shape the government’s climate change adaption strategies or making decisions on whether to hang out the washing!

In the introduction to the recently published UK Government Resilience Framework, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster recognised climate change as a key part of the UK’s evolving threat picture in the same sentence as the invasion of Ukraine, COVID-19 and cyber challenges.

Hazards associated with storms, low temperatures, heatwaves, droughts, flooding, snow and ice are all highlighted in the government’s National Risk Register. However, the influence of weather doesn’t stop there – even incidents that aren’t caused by the weather are often influenced by it. For example, during the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 the modelling of winds high in the atmosphere meant that the dispersion of the radioactive material could be forecast. Plumes of pollution from hazardous waste fires can be predicted, helping inform decisions about air quality and possible evacuations. The likelihood of wildfires is related to air temperature, rainfall, and wind strength, all of which is monitored. Our Services Operations Centre in Exeter is a 24/7 facility that not only monitors weather but also the risk of severe space weather events and hosts the joint Met Office / Environment Agency Flood Forecasting Centre that provides flood guidance for England and Wales.

Every year impacts from severe weather cost the UK millions of pounds.  It is estimated that insurance losses from Storm Eunice in February 2022 alone totalled £200-350 million. The human cost is often more significant – the same storm is reported to have caused 3 deaths in the UK with a further 14 fatalities across Europe. These human and economic impacts highlight the destructive power of such storms.

The Met Office issued multiple warnings for Storm Eunice, the storm being identified and named with 4 days’ lead time helped to mitigate its impact. The advance warning allowed responders time to review emergency plans and prepare equipment and resources in advance of the storm.  There was opportunity for joint media campaigns and news coverage, providing advice and guidance to the public regarding how best to say safe during the storm.

Storm Eunice is a prime example of how our National Severe Weather Warning Service can serve the UK.  The warnings are based on a matrix system which is used to highlight the severity of upcoming weather impacts and the likelihood of those impacts occurring. The Warning Service highlights weather impacts resulting from rain, wind, fog, snow, ice, thunderstorms, lightning and, since 2021, extreme heat.

The warnings are produced by expert meteorologists working from our operations centres in Exeter and Aberdeen, using cutting-edge numerical weather prediction systems and up-to- the-minute observations of current conditions to evaluate how weather impacts will affect the population and infrastructure of the UK up to 7 days in advance.  These warnings are communicated in various ways – traditionally television and radio forecasts were the primary route, but more recently social media and the internet have overtaken as the most common way people access warning information.

Alongside the warnings, the emergency response community is served by a team of 22 Civil Contingency Advisors that help plan for, respond to and recover from weather incidents.  Our Advisors are often embedded in multi-agency resilience command centres during emergencies and contribute at all levels – up to and including high level Central Government meetings. A key role of our Advisors is to feed information about current incidents back into our operations centres. This operational intelligence is vital during an incident –helping ensure weather warnings fully reflect the impacts that are being felt on the ground.

Pioneering work undertaken by Met Office scientists is giving us a better understanding of the changes we can expect to high impact weather events as a result of climate change. This work details the likely frequency and type of extreme weather events we can expect in the future, along with their likely impact. Whilst risk assessments and plans may be robust at the moment, evolution of these plans is necessary as climate change continues to affect the weather conditions of the UK. Extreme weather events are becoming more severe and more common -the heatwave of July 2022, which saw temperatures reaching 40.3oC  in Lincolnshire, being a perfect example.  This smashed the previous UK record of 38.7oC and temperatures of this level will likely be exceeded in coming years as the global climate warms.

I’m extremely proud of the way the Met Office is helping the UK prepare for both existing challenges and those that will develop as climate change continues to change our world.  I welcome the change to Category 2 Responder status as a recognition of the pivotal role we will continue to play in emergency response.  We’ll continue to strive to use cutting edge science and expertise to improve the warnings, advice and guidance we provide – the outcome of which is to help save lives.

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