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Published: 05 November 2013

Surrey academic makes sense of the weather on Huffington Post

Professor Ian Roulstone explains how mathematics helped predict St Jude’s storm.

The Huffington Post – one of the world’s most popular and influential news websites – is providing the perfect forum for Professor Ian Roulstone to demystify the science behind weather forecasting. He and co-author Professor John Norbury of the University of Oxford have been regular columnists on the website since May this year, using current events as a news hook to engage readers’ interest.

St Jude’s storm, which was the worst to hit the UK since the devastating storm of 1987, gave Professor Roulstone the chance to highlight a weather forecasting ‘success story’ and identify the factors that made this possible. His HuffPost article informed readers that while the massive power of today’s supercomputers clearly played an important part, it was the increasingly sophisticated mathematical algorithms incorporated into these computers that enabled forecasters to predict the storm’s path and severity four days before it formed.

Reaction to the piece has been positive, with one reader commenting: “This kind of simply-expressed article expresses a basic synopsis of how complexity and chaotic systems can be understood and handled through advanced mathematical developments, and should inform first-year secondary school general education as routine.”

Another recent HuffPost article by Professor Roulstone marks the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. Comparing two devastating storms that happened 75 years apart (Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the Great New England Hurricane in 1938) he highlights how far weather prediction has come. With no satellites or computer models, the earlier hurricane killed nearly 600 people, injured over 700 and caused around $4.8 billion of damage in today’s money; by comparison, while Hurricane Sandy was still a tragedy, timely warnings enabled by advanced weather prediction succeeded in averting greater catastrophe.

Professor Roulstone believes that while the inaccuracy of weather forecasts tends to be the butt of jokes, broadening awareness about the science behind weather prediction through popular media such as HuffPost – ranked as the ‘most powerful blog in the world’ by The Observer – is vitally important.

“There will always be chaos in the weather, so we will never be able to predict it with total accuracy. As a result, people often react to forecasters by saying: ‘So you’re just guessing!’ But taking astronomy as a comparative example, if astronomers told us that a comet was due to hit the earth, we would – rightly – take that very seriously indeed.

“If we want people to take weather forecasts more seriously, I think we have to show them where the science is coming from. This way, people can be better prepared – as was the case with St Jude’s storm, when rail networks put plans into place, for example.”

Professor Roulstone first became interested in meteorology while studying for a DPhil in Mathematical Physics at the University of Oxford, during which he attended a lecture by Professor John Norbury on weather prediction. He has since spent 14 years working as a research scientist with the Met Office before joining the University of Surrey, and is a Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society. He and Professor Norbury recently co-authored a book entitled ‘Invisible in the Storm: The Role of Mathematics in Understanding Weather’.

Read Professor Roulstone’s article on the Huffington Post.

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