'Every 1 per cent gain in accuracy is crucial in climate change research'

February 4, 2005

John Thurburn is working with the Met Office to improve forecasting in this highly unpredictable area

As scientists gathered in Exeter this week for a climate change summit, Exeter University announced a new chair, jointly funded with the Met Office. John Thurburn, Exeter's new professor in geophysical fluid dynamics, and the Met Office will work on creating new forecasting models.

Weather predictions are made using supercomputers based at the Met Office in Exeter, which rely on complicated mathematical equations to pinpoint how our weather will change. But the earth's atmosphere is so complex that even the most advanced computers cannot predict weather patterns with total accuracy.

Professor Thurburn, who was a meteorology lecturer at Reading University before taking up his new post, said: "The challenge is to formulate equations that a computer can deal with, and for these equations to capture the physical behaviour of the weather as accurately as possible, given the limitations of the computer system." Longer range weather forecasting and climate change predictions present the greatest challenges of all, because very small changes in the atmosphere can result in very big climate shifts over time.

"That is why we need computer models to be as accurate as possible. Every 1 or 2 per cent gain in accuracy is crucial."

As far as day-to-day weather is concerned, he hopes his research will help the Met Office give an estimate of the reliability of its forecasts in future. "For instance, it might be able to say there is a 40 per cent chance of rain in the South West," he said.

Tony Tysome

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