Partnership with the Met Office helps weather forecasting in West Africa

Forecasting weather in the tropical climate of West Africa has long been a problem for the region’s meteorologists. Aged infrastructure, outdated forecasting methods and the intensity of the region’s weather extremes make prediction difficult. As part of the Met Office Academic Partnership, scientists from Leeds have devised the first bespoke training resource for meteorologists in West Africa.

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“In Africa, there is a short pathway between weather and people’s everyday experience,” claims Professor Doug Parker, Professor of Meteorology in the Institute for Climate and Atmospheric Science at the University of Leeds. “The weather can have a dramatic and immediate effect on how people work and live, particularly in places like West Africa where the weather can be so changeable and extreme. The livelihoods of many people are directly affected by weather patterns such as rainfall, drought, winds and extremes of temperature, on a day to day basis.”

Meteorologists use a variety of techniques to help them build up a picture of the flow and development of weather patterns. It’s something the Met Office has been doing since 1854, and in the UK we now have arguably the best weather forecasting and climate prediction system in the world.

“In the Northern hemisphere we have great forecasts, but in West Africa they don’t currently enjoy the same benefits,” Professor Parker adds. “Without these forecasts, it can be difficult for anyone, from families to farmers, to plan an hour ahead, let alone a day or a season”.

Developed with partners across the UK and Europe, Professor Parker and colleagues have published Meteorology of Tropical West Africa: The Forecasters’ Handbook — the first comprehensive guide for weather forecasters in the region, and the first of its kind for any part of the world.

Balancing theory and practice, the book is full of tools and techniques for amateur and professional meteorologists to improve their forecasts — and hopefully the lives of those who make West Africa their home.

The guide is informed by years of practical experience and partnership working between the University of Leeds and the Met Office, tackling some of the leading global challenges in weather forecasting and climate prediction.

African solution

“Across West Africa, there are 15 countries, each approaching weather prediction in different ways,” says Professor Parker. Each country has its own forecasting priorities, with resources and equipment of varying levels of sophistication, and many channels of communication. The challenge for Professor Parker and colleagues wasn’t simply to introduce a European model to the system, but to develop West African methods that would work in the region’s conditions and environment.

“We worked closely with local agencies to develop the resource. Across the region there are some highly trained experts, a long track record of local knowledge and some excellent equipment. Our role wasn’t to dictate how they should approach the task of forecasting in West Africa, but to develop solutions together,” he adds.

Professor Parker describes the relationship between partners in the project not as a transfer of knowledge, but as a knowledge exchange — where both sides were keen to learn and develop from the interaction. The initiative has stimulated new research in the UK and Africa, which aims to improve innovation in forecasting for the years and decades to come.

Strong partnership

The project is just one of those that have been conducted as part of the long-standing partnership between the University of Leeds and the Met Office. The University has worked closely with the Met Office since the 1980s, using its growing expertise in meteorological science to improve our collective understanding of weather and climate.

In 2010, the University became one of four Met Office Academic Partners, along with the Universities of Exeter, Oxford and Reading, all of which play a key role in supporting the Met Office’s ambition to ensure the UK remains a world leader in the field of climate and weather prediction.

The strategic partnership is structured around four key research themes. As well as the focus on climate and its impacts, researchers are also focusing on atmospheric observations and processes, atmospheric composition and the Social Science implications of weather and climate.

Practical experience

Professor Parker specialises in the study of the physics and fluid dynamics of the atmosphere, with a focus on storms, cyclones and monsoons in Africa and India. The Met Office Academic Partnership provides a clear practical focus for the work that Professor Parker and his colleagues are doing. “It allows us to develop and focus our research, which we can use to support better forecasts,” he says.

The relationship also allows innovative new models and approaches developed by the team to be put into practice as quickly as possible.

“The atmospheric chemistry and particulate models that we have developed at the University of Leeds are now part of the Met Office models,” Professor Parker says.

The partnership also involves Met Office staff spending time with Professor Parker and colleagues at the University of Leeds, taking part in collaborative projects that cover the whole range of the partnership.

The University also supports students to achieve formal qualifications, with 22 joint PhD students currently working with a range of supervisors at Leeds, collaborating with the Met Office on research problems in the Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry and Social Sciences of the Earth’s climate system.

The benefits are reciprocal, with both partners profiting substantially from the relationship, exchanging views, opinions and insight. It creates an environment that encourages research innovation, and the practical application of scientific knowledge.

“In the UK we have the best weather forecasting and climate prediction system in the world.” Professor Parker says. “Working together with the Met Office, the University of Leeds is playing a key role in keeping it that way.”

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The University of Leeds was founded in 1904, and its origins go back to the nineteenth century with the founding of the Leeds School of Medicine in 1831.

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