Saturday, 23 October 2010

Abacus on Amphetamine

The met office website is one of those places I pick up weather information before deciding on whether to go paddling or not. The inshore forecast they provide, plus a look at some wind sites that give more localised info, help me make my decision.

Never really thought much about how this stuff was put together, so I was intrigued when on their website the Met Office put an invitation for people to come along to their HQ in Exeter for an open day. I applied for a ticket and without delay one arrived in the post.

A very early morning wake up to the light of the moon

I'm well into England and down the M5 before we rotate into the sun's rays. Coming off at Jn 29 you can't really miss the Met Office's Hadley Centre, not that there are Monty Python like sun rays out of dark clouds pointing you to it, but more like numerous highways agency sign posts. They don't want you to miss this expensive building.

To say the place is impressive would be an understatement. It is super high tech and a super cool open plan environment. Each wing of the building isn't named Block A, B, C etc. No, not cool enough, each are named after a lighthouse around the world that begins with that letter. Eddystone, Fastnet are the only two I remember, the others are from far flung corners of the world. The place is heated by using the heat generated from it's computer system to heat up stone heat sinks in the floors, and then blow air over it to circulate it around the building.

There is a stream running through "the street" inside the building, and there is even a part built lighthouse structure at one end. The place has overtones of a Google Office work environment with think areas, comfy sofas and "intelligent art". Not quite my preconceived idea of an MOD department. Well done I say.

This open day is part of a consultation with the general public to find out what we like/don't about their service and what we would like to see in the future.

One of the newest offerings of their forecasting system will be made available shortly. A huge increase in the number of locations that we can access for weather predictions is going to be made. We will be able get forecasts for some 5000 points in the UK.

You can even ring them up for a localise forecast for your garden party. To help them with their predictions of the weather chaos system they have a computer.

Their current IBM supercomputer

The beast in the basement thing is being fed huge nay colossal amounts of data from satellite and real land based readings. These are fed in to the computer for a complex predictive model to be run which then spits out the weather (sort of).

I often wondered why the inshore forecast was updated in 6hr intervals, well it seems that it takes a while for each of these runs to complete, and then a forecaster to interpret and tweak and add that vital bit of human interpretation override. Can't always take a computers answer for it you know, even one that cost £33 million.

To call HAL's big brother a £33 million pound oversized calculator, would be insulting to its ability to make 137 trillion computations a second. This is a supercomputer, and one of the fastest on the planet.

Oh did I forget to say they have 2 of them. Just in case the main one fails there is a back up that can come on line and take over. This weather stuff is of national importance. The Met provides information to the military, airlines, environment agency, health, and loads of things I didn't appreciate they do.

The subtle irony of this centre, which provides for the UK Government an assessment of both natural and man-made climate change, is that the center itself produces some 12,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year. Presumably it's the amount of carbon dioxide created at the power station to generate the 1.2MW of electricity a year it uses (enough to light a small town). This is used mainly to power the beast in the basement. This is mitigated by an estimated 20 million tons of carbon dioxide a year saved globally due to the use of their aviation forecasts allowing aircraft to save fuel by using the wind direction at different levels of the atmosphere, as well as various economic savings through bad weather warnings (flood, ice, marine) which allow the various authorities and individuals to take appropriate action (or not).

The guys here admit, they do get it wrong sometimes, it is after all only a probability of an event happening within a chaotic system.

As I looked out the window I half expected in pure Kubrick style "Just what do you think you're doing, Eurion?" to pipe out of some hidden tannoy.

"Just checking the weather!"

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Strange Goings On

It's been one of those glorious mornings. Hywel had suggested one of his regular trips. So after a very lazy start to the day, Adrian and I met him at Swanbridge and left the enticemennt of the Captains Wife for a jaunt over to Flatholm.

Low neap tide and a high pressure together with little wind provided us with a fairly calm playground.

Flatholm, with strangeness occurring at the waters edge

What I hadn't expected, or had I seen before, was the way the opposite side of the Bristol Channel looked. Some strange atmospheric conditions were causing mirages to occur and the opposite side of the channel was broken up in to what looked like lots of islands.

Steepholm to the right with a new island to the left (Brean Down)

Brean Down 'Island' with other 'Islets'
(click on the pic to see a slightly bigger version)

Hywel approaching Flatholm

Giving way!

We do an anticlockwise circumnavigation of and head on back to the Captains Wife to sink a well earned pint of "Tribute" and contemplate projects.

A short trip, but what a glorious day and a fantastic pint.

7Nm around the island