A changing climate for long-term decision making

Joe Osborne is an industry consultancy manager at the Met Office, helping to provide organisations with the tools they need to manage weather and climate risks.

The weather is never too far away from the headlines. Whether it’s storms over winter or the often record-breaking heatwaves of recent years, the UK’s obsession with the weather certainly has plenty to sink its teeth in to. In a changing climate, these conversations about the weather are increasingly turning in to meaningful decisions around the future climate.

We’re already observing our changing climate. Whether on a UK level or a global level, we’re seeing fundamental shifts in long-term weather and climate patterns as a result of human emissions of warming greenhouse gases since the industrial revolution.

But these long-term shifts to the climate can be hard for business leaders and organisations to adapt to and take appropriate steps for long-term decision-making.

While severe weather makes you sit up and take notice in the short term, decisions about increasing frequency or severity of weather for the coming decades can often be harder to consider.

Impactful weather events always bring home to people the influence the weather can have on UK infrastructure. Whether it’s storms like Arwen or Eunice which brought significant impacts to energy supplies, or flooding events associated with Storm Babet or even the droughts and hosepipe bans of 2022; these events help to sharpen focus for leaders and serve as a reminder for government and industry to work together for long-term planning and resilience.

Knock-on impacts

Summer 2022 saw the first time in the observational record temperatures over 40°C being reached in the UK. It was a landmark moment for the UK and an important reminder of the UK’s shifting climate. However, what was most troubling for some sectors was the knock-on impacts of this unprecedented heat.

Water consumption increased as people showered to stay cool, filled paddling pools and emergency services dealt with wildfires. An increased strain on travel infrastructure and healthcare services also provided another impact to deal with. These knock-on impacts from the heat provided food-for-thought for many leaders in industry and in government as climate projections suggest heatwaves will become more common, more intense and longer lasting in the coming decades.

Leading science

Part of my work at the Met Office is making sure that organisations have the tools they need to make the long-term decisions required to safeguard critical infrastructure. To do that we lean heavily on the Met Office’s leading climate science and projections, but we’re increasingly working to make these often-complex datasets into useful, bespoke products that can inform industry leaders and organisations about the specific risks for them.

Taking a look at changing rainfall rates in the UK as a result of climate change highlights the complexities. It’s one thing to have the projections that show a move to warmer, wetter winters, and hotter, drier summers, but it’s another thing entirely to translate this data into useable products for water companies, flood risk specialists and transport planners.

By proactively working with businesses and organisations, we’re able to understand the key questions that they are asking and provide bespoke products that makes our leading science and climate projections useable for specific regions, sectors and users. This expertise spreads across a range of sectors, from water resources to energy demand as well as transport infrastructure.

Managing climate risks isn’t an easy issue to get your head around. Nuances in data, understanding uncertainty and specific sector issues can make it a complex subject to take on. But with severe weather continuing to make headlines, it’s something that is increasingly becoming important for people at all levels of organisations to consider.

Even though summers are expected to get drier, instances of high-impact convective rainfall events are likely to increase. This is when heavy, often thundery, downpours of rain take place in a short period of time. This can obviously have impacts across a range of industries and working on bespoke products for organisations is the only way to manage specific long-term risks.

For every degree Celsius that the Earth’s temperature rises, the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere can increase by about 7 per cent. It might sound small, but this can have big knock-on impacts for extreme rainfall at a global level.

By overlaying climate projections with information and data on water infrastructure, energy networks or transport routes, organisations can better understand future pinch points and where investment can be best made for future resilience. For us, it’s about providing leading climate data; but also providing leaders with the information they need to make decisions to thrive in the coming decades.

Weather and climate

Expertise in modelling the UK’s weather and climate obviously also has applications at a shorter timeframe. We at the Met Office work every day with industry in energy, water and transport to help systems to work as efficiently as possible. Whether it’s helping powerlines to run effectively, assessing rainfall amounts for the coming weeks or helping the railways stay clear, the short-term forecast helps to keep things moving.

This expertise in weather also helps with ensuring appropriate resilience is built for the present-day. Storm Arwen, for example, was one of the most damaging winter storms of the last decade when it reached the UK in late November 2021. What was particularly notable about Storm Arwen was the northerly wind direction, with the majority of storms in the UK bringing more westerly winds.

While Arwen itself caused significant disruption to power networks, the learnings from it mean that we’re able to stress-test infrastructure plans and developments against a reasonable worst-case scenario in the present-day.

An evolving process

As an organisation working at the cutting edge of science, we’re aware of the need to continue to evolve our services.

We work to make sure that our science is tailored to meet the fast-changing requirements of government and industry to help answer some of the challenges and opportunities of the future.

Leading science has a need to be tailored to those who need it most. So we work to help meet requirements of long and short-term challenges, whether that’s aiding the transition to more renewable energy, or ensuring water resources are able to meet the demands of the future climate.

Find out more about the Met Office’s services, including working with government here.

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